The last puritan

Classical music - Henry Sheen on why Glenn Gould still haunts other pianists 20 years after his deat

In Thomas Bernhard's novel Der Untergeher (The Loser), the virtuoso pianist Wertheimer happens to walk past a room in the Salzburg Conservatorium where the young Canadian Glenn Gould is playing the aria from Bach's Goldberg Variations. The aria is simple, but he has never heard such reverential zeal. It is an "inhuman state" to which he can never aspire. He abandons his musical career, auctions off his piano and takes up the human sciences. Later, he kills himself. On his record-player in the room where he commits suicide is Gould's 1955 recording of the Variations.

Glenn Gould died in October 1982. Twenty years on, he remains a spectre to aspirant pianists: revered by most, even the few who dislike his playing concede that Gould's interpretations are always fascinating and instructive. It is fortunate that he bequeathed such a large recording output, a result of his renunciation of the concert hall in 1964 and his subsequent devotion to the recording studio. "At live concerts," he said, "I feel demeaned, like a vaudevillian." He loathed the showpiece element of the concert hall: its artificiality, time constraints and the elevation of the individual above his craft - a Romantic legacy as uninteresting to Gould as music that was not contrapuntal.

The biography is disconcerting. He was born in Toronto in 1932. His father was a furrier (and amateur violinist), his mother a singing teacher who played piano and organ. He had perfect pitch and learnt the piano under his mother's tutelage until 1943, when he went to the Toronto Conservatory to study under the Chilean pianist Alberto Guerrero - or at least, as Gould said later, "to crystallise my point of view against his". He continued his studies with Guerrero until 1952. His first public recital was on the organ in 1945, which resulted in a headline in the local press: "Boy, 12, shows genius as an organist." In 1947, he performed Beethoven's G major Piano Concerto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. With characteristic rigour, the 14-year-old knew every nuance of Schnabel's interpretation - and could reproduce it, provoking an acerbic critic to say: "Who does the kid think he is? Schnabel?" Another observed that "he sat at the piano a child among professors, and he talked with them as one with authority".

This sort of self-confidence was born out of his quasi-religious attention to his subject: a childhood friend remarked that "even as a child, Glenn was very isolated because he was working like hell to be a great man". In Gould's own words, he "opted out creatively", choosing not to indulge in personal relationships owing to his asceticism and devotion to his craft - even though he was considered the Marlon Brando or the James Dean of the keyboard by the sensationalist media.

Between 1951 and 1964, Gould played in 153 orchestral concerts and made 117 solo recitals, becoming the first North American to play in the Soviet Union (in Leningrad) in 1957. The most renowned was Gould's US debut in Washington, DC, in January 1955, followed by New York nine days later. His programme was idiosyncratic, reflecting his interest in counterpoint - or, as he said, "music with an explosion of simultaneous ideas". The managing director of Columbia's classical division, David Oppenheim, was at the recital and promptly contracted Gould for Columbia Records.

The remark: "He's great, and Columbia's got him!" followed Gould everywhere, and was often used as a pretext to excuse his foibles. The first recording he proposed was characteristically eccentric: Bach's 1742 Goldberg Variations, an unfashionable piece generally used for teaching purposes.

It is difficult in retrospect to appreciate the nonconformism of such a choice by a 22-year-old. The domain of the harpsichordists, the Bach keyboard opus was taboo for pianists; and when played, heavily romanticised, with mechanical virtuosity, rubati, crescendi and diminuendi, and legato lines. These were features of the "pianistic" school. It is interesting to note Gould's criticism of his own recording of the G major Partita: "It's full of crescendi and diminuendi that have no part in the structure, in the skeleton of that music." Rhythmic continuity- shape, if you will - is the sine qua non of Gould's interpretationism.

Gould used two words to describe his playing: calculation and ecstasy. The first involved minute study of the piece, the technical reasoning behind his interpretation; the second to a stepping away, a dissipation of the interpreter, that might leave only the instrument and Bach's music at work. Despite the obscurity of the piece at the time, Gould's recording was an astonishing success: sales were greater than the latest Louis Armstrong release, and it was said to be the one record of serious music that every college girl would have on her shelf.

Gould, the arch-contrapuntal exponent, is seen as the great interpreter of the arch- contrapuntal composer J S Bach. Gould himself suggested that it might be best to listen to the music in a room with a speaker in each corner, to focus on the different contrapuntal parts. His interpretations have the coherence, harmony and articulation of parts that characterise Gothic cathedrals - and similar reverential awe. Those who saw him perform often remarked on the religious aura of his playing, a facet that cannot be overemphasised in any evaluation. One of the two Romantic composers he enjoyed was Mendelssohn (Richard Strauss was the other), whose craft, Gould said, is "at the service of an extraordinarily touching, neo-devotional attitude which I find particularly alluring". No wonder, then, that he should call himself the "Last Puritan".

Gould's monastic exile was self-chosen. Those who worked with him were usually unequivocal in their praise. Yehudi Menuhin found him "full of genuine warmth and helpful concern, passion, humour". On the other hand, there were collisions. Prior to a performance of Brahms's D minor Piano Concerto, Leonard Bernstein publicly disclaimed the interpretation. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf broke off a recording of Strauss's Lieder when Gould would not stop improvising.

To make it worse, the studio was, as ever, overheated. On his first recording day in June 1955 - a hot, humid day - Gould came in wearing an overcoat, a tweed jacket and sweater, a woollen scarf and a cap. Before each session, he plunged his hands in boiling hot water.

At 50, the Last Puritan died of a stroke when he was on the point of devoting himself to composing and conducting. The sole consolation is that he re-recorded the Goldberg Variations in 1981, the year before he died.

A collection of Glenn Gould recordings has recently been reissued by Sony Classical