Glenn Gould is a Canadian icon. He’s a household name, but I think that most people’s knowledge of him run out after they say he was a pianist. The first paragraph of his Wikipedia entry positively glows:

Glenn Herbert Gould (September 25, 1932 – October 4, 1982) was a Canadian pianist who became one of the best-known and most celebrated classical pianists of the twentieth century. He was particularly renowned as an interpreter of the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach. His playing was distinguished by a remarkable technical proficiency and a capacity to articulate the polyphonic texture of Bach’s music.

Being a Canadian, and having heard his name many times, I thought I should hear his work for myself. Our libraries make sure Canadians are well-represented, so it was a simple matter to reserve some of his recordings. At the time, I didn’t know he was so big on Bach. My first choice was his recording of Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions. This wasn’t entirely a coincidence, because I’m quite partial to Bach, myself.

I thought it an odd composition. All of the 30 pieces are very short. The longest is just over four minutes, and most are less than two minutes in length. At that point I started digging. Why are all the pieces so short? What’s an invention in this context? What’s the difference between a two-part invention and a three-part invention?

Wikipedia was quick to help describe an invention as,

a short composition (usually for a keyboard instrument) with two-part counterpoint.

And counterpoint is,

the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm and are harmonically interdependent.

So a three-part invention is the same but with three different, but interdependent melodies, played together. It’s a logical extrapolation, but not exactly correct. Strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as a three-part invention. It’s called a sinfonia. It seemed to me that the title of the work as a whole would be better named something like Inventions and Sinfonias, and as it happens, that is its name.

So why isn’t it called what it really is? Wikipedia claims that modern publishers avoid the word ‘sinfonia’ because they think people would confuse it with ‘symphony.’ I scoffed at the thought, but ‘sinfonia’ is Italian for ‘symphony,’ so perhaps I was too quick to judge.

That’s all fine and interesting, but it is not the most interesting part about The Inventions and Sinfonias. It seems that this beautiful music wasn’t written for an audience. Rather, Bach wrote the inventions as an exercise for his son, and he later wrote the sinfonias for the benefit of his other piano students. That’s why there are 15 inventions … one in each key. The same for the sinfonias. Some are remarkably complex, with no obviously simpler melody for the non-dominant hand. No, each hand gets the full work-out and I can imagine they’re quite difficult to play. A fitting exercise, indeed.

But at the same time, they’re remarkably beautiful and compelling.

I came across an Angela Hewitt recording of The Inventions and Sinfonias, and I wasn’t as impressed. Her performance seems a lot more flowery and faster. And to my ear, not only are all the flourishes unnecessary, but they take away from the music itself. I don’t know the music very well yet, but I feel a lot more from Gould’s more minimalist interpretation. I shy away from using the word simple because there’s nothing simple or easy about playing it. He plays beautifully without getting in the way of the music, so to speak.

My only complaint about his rendition is the recording quality. Yes, it’s from the mid-60s as far as I’ve been able to determine, and I have no doubt that its been remastered to the moon and back, but recording technology has come a long way in the last 40 years. I thought that recording studios had also come a long way because the recording also has the unmistakable sound of people in the background. I thought the studios walls were thin, and perhaps surface noise and rumble inherent in vinyl sound recordings masked these unwanted sounds so no one noticed. I was wrong. I’ve since read that the sounds in the recording are Gould himself. At times you can clearly hear him humming. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Hewitt’s recording is from the mid-90s, thirty years more recent, but I have issues with it as well. The recording style used to capture Gould’s performance recorded the piano and nothing else, as is my preference. Hewitt’s recording captured some of the acoustics of the performance space in addition to the piano itself. The idea behind this style is to give the listener a more immersive experience, like being there. My objection to this recording style is that when I listen to it, the performance space in the recording is then superimposed on the room in which I’m playing the recording. My room reflects the sound … that comes recorded with its own reflections. To my ear, the result isn’t always good. Also, a recording of the instruments without the room sounds more immediate and compelling to me.

Whatever your preferred performer and recording style, The Inventions and Sinfonias is a beautiful way to spend 50 minutes.