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Kultur presents
The Glenn Gould Collection (1998/2002/1994)

"I detest audiences. Not in their individual capacity, but I detest audiences en masse. I think they're a force of evil."
- Glenn Gould

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: December 18, 2003

Stars: Glenn Gould
Other Stars: Kenneth Welsh, R.H. Thomspon, Jean-Louis Millerie, Jean Marhand, Fran&cced;ois Girard, Lady Diana Menuhin,
Director: David Langer, Yosif Feyginberg, Jocelyn Barnabé

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (prescription drug abuse)
Run Time: 02h:48m:02s
Release Date: June 10, 2003
UPC: 032031260092
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was, if not one of the foremost pianists and interpreters of Bach in the world, certainly one of the most widely known. Eccentric and difficult, but undeniably talented, Gould early on refused to continue performing in public and only performed through audio and video recordings instead. His enigmatic character is examined in this trio of documentaries regarding his life and his career (the three DVDs are also available separately).

The first disc contains an episode of the CBC series Life & Times devoted to Gould. Along with a couple brief clips of Gould himself, there are interviews with Gould's father and a psychologist who wrote a Gould biography. The emphasis here is on Gould's tendency to be strange, or as the biographer puts it, "not just odd, but forcefully eccentric." Certainly few other pianists play with a low chair far below the keyboard, with legs crossed, and plunging their arms into hot water to prepare for playing. And of course, there's Gould's tendency for talking and singing along with his playing, which may be the factoid about Gould that is best known.

Unfortunately, the program more or less treats Gould as a freak show; little attempt is made to dig beneath the eccentricities. Of course, the brevity of the program (46m:41s) doesn't help, but even then large chunks of the running time are eaten up with irrelevancies such as footage of schoolchildren in a playground. While bare biographical details are present, anyone looking for insights will need to look to the other two discs of the set.

More interesting is The Russian Journey, a more substantial examination of a single incident in Gould's life: a goodwill tour of the USSR in May of 1957. As the first performer from the West to be allowed in for several decades, he was an immediate sensation. Despite tensions arising over the Suez and Hungarian crises just before the tour, his unique style of playing made a huge splash, and for a change the blasé Gould was actually very pleased with his reception. Particularly of note is the testimony from Russian composers and musicians about the enormous impact made by Gould when he gave a lecture at the Moscow conservatory and made mention of Hindemith, Schoenberg and others who were prohibited under the Communist regime. The event is considered in the musical world of Russia as the equivalent of the Berlin Wall coming down, and it's a fascinating episode. Unfortunately, the recordings of Gould's performances use Russian technology and are barely listenable, the only serious defect with this disc (and given the source material, I doubt anything could have been done to remedy it).

The final disc, Extasis, is a collection of interviews from various musicians, composers and musicologists analyzing Gould's performance techniques, his musical thinking and much about Gould's character. This makes it an essential companion to the rather bland Life & Times disc. The title word refers to a concept of a shared awareness between a performer and an audience; although Gould rejected the audience as such, he did believe very much in communicating through music on a one-to-one basis, and it is this meeting of the minds to which the title refers. There are a great many insightful remarks here, including some from the director of Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, who has some incisive comments. I found especially intriguing the observations regarding Gould's penchant for rewriting composers (including such notables as Mozart) at will. One living composer doesn't say much about it, but his irritation at Gould's revamping of his set of variations is obvious.

For music lovers, Extasis will be the most treasured disc of the set; if you were going to buy only one of the three this is the one I'd suggest. Particularly noteworthy is the emphasis on Bach's Goldberg Variations, which was an important work for Gould. It was the first piece he ever recorded, and his second recording of it was released just two days before his death from a stroke at age 50. Coincidentally, Bach's set of pensive variations that parallel a reflection on a long life, poetically begins exactly as it ends. By including clips of numerous performances of the work over the years, the connection between the man and this composition is beautifully emphasized.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyesno

Image Transfer Review: Life & Times and Extasis are presented in their original full frame; The Russian Journey is in anamorphic widescreen. While that may be proper for the film proper, it results in the Gould footage from the 1950s being severely cropped. The biography is full of videotape erors and dropouts, pixelation, fairly severe aliasing. It's fairly shabby for the most part. The Russian Journey, despite its cropped status, looks fairly decent by contrast, even though the Russian source materials are in middling condition. Extasis looks the best of the lot, with only minor video issues and good black levels and color. The clips from Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould look terribly murky, however, as if they were filmed off a television monitor. Don't expect much from the video end of these discs.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, French (on Extasis only)yes

Audio Transfer Review: While the sound on the biography is acceptable if, a bit noisy, The Russian Journey is practically unlistenable. Gould's piano is horrifically distorted throughout, another triumph of Russian recording technology, which similarly ruined the Prokofiev score to Alexander Nevsky some years earlier. Extasis sounds pretty good, but it's nonetheless a very difficult listen for English speakers. That's because it was originally shot in French (the original French is provided, but without subtitles), and the English track features a voiceover translating on top of the speakers' voices in French. This is difficult enough, but on occasion footage of Gould or Girard's set of short films is playing with audio in the background, and the result is a maddening and unintelligible mess. Why, why, why were subtitles not provided? Between the last two discs, this is a painful exercise in listening, which would surely mortify Gould were he to know about it.

Audio Transfer Grade: D


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 53 cues and remote access
1 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
3 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. 2nd and 3rd movements from Bach's concerto nr. 5 in F minor
  2. Bach, "Fugue nr. 4"
  3. Beethoven's bagatelle op. 126 nr. 3
  4. Fantasy for Organ by Sweelinck
Extras Review: A few additional bits of footage and performances are provided as extras. The most substantial interview footage is a 20m:28s interview with Gould's manager, Walter Homburger. This is mostly devoted to reminiscences of the Russian trip. There's a cute bit of Gould speaking to a group of children, demonstrating his affinity for funny voices and play-acting various roles. There's also a 2m:54s clip of Gould being interviewed on his return from Russia by a particularly obtuse journalist who can't think of anything more incisive to ask about than in how many cities Gould performed.

Of more interest to music lovers are four performances by Gould. No dates are indicated, but many of them appear to be from when Gould was in his early 20s. The Bach F minor concerto is a gorgeous performance, but suffers from noisy and distorted audio, as do all the other clips. I'm not sure exactly what the piece billed only as "Fugue nr. 4" here is; it's not one of the fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier in any event, unless Gould made entirely free with the thematic materials. An incredibly slow rendition of one of Beethoven's late bagatelles is a fascinating examination in pianistic restraint. Finally, a Fantasy for Organ is performed on piano rather than its proper instrument. The audio quality is pretty disappointing but it's a pleasure to watch Gould in action after having people talk about him for several hours. The grade would be higher if the audio weren't so poor.

A caution: the running times on the cases are inflated by including the running times of the bonus material. Thus the total time is overstated by a little under an hour.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

An uneven set of three musical documentaries, ranging from excellent in quality to marginal. The audio quality unfortunately is iffy much of the time, and parts are a serious chore to hear, which is tragic for a set of works about a musician devoted to the art of recording. Some useful extras, but beware: they're counted in the running time so you're not getting as much as you might think.


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