Top Ear

Grynyuk, Gould and Gulda

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Jeremy Lee writes

This is a very intelligently programmed release.  If there were two pianistic mavericks in the past century that all other pianistic mavericks in the past century had to be measured against, they were Glenn Gould and Friedrich Gulda.  As the booklet notes (written by the pianist himself) keep reminding us, Gulda and Gould forged completely new paths from the routine pianist life cycle:  they rebelled against the music industry, shattered social norms and customs both in terms of their artistry and their personal behaviours, and redefined a “classical music artist” and its role in society and humanities.  Of course, the notes don’t fail to inform us how radically different Gould and Gulda’s compositional paths were.  Gould hated jazz and composed in an academic, austere, distinctly 20th-century musical language;  Gulda was a part-time jazz musician and his works reflect that part of his artistry through a tuneful, relaxing jazz idiom.

So much for biographies.  Sasha Grynyuk proves that he’s no mean musician as well, infusing all the works with rhythmic vitality and textural clarity.  In Gulda’s Play Piano Play (subtitled 10 Übungsstücke für Yoko (Lennon)), which I believe is the first-ever integral recording, Grynyuk’s light, luminous touch, delicate, finely-graded hues in the pianissimi, and sparse yet minutely and accurately judged use of pedal makes it sound cleaner, crisper, clearer and cooler than Hamelin’s recordings of No. 1, 4 and 5 on Hyperion, yet some listeners (myself included) may harbour a slight preference for Hamelin’s inimitably smooth and supple phrasing, darker and warmer sonority, effortless technical facility, and an utterly idiomatic jazz feel, an X-factor that is something Grynyuk, though certainly accomplished and well-versed in the jazz idiom, doesn’t really approach.

However, in the other numbers, Grynyuk is pretty much his own man.  He invests much color and drive in the suavely shifting harmonies of the Second, guides us through the austerity of the Third with absolute focus, unleashes torrents of rapid repeated notes and runs in the toccata-like Sixth, pointing towards his considerable technique (but is his tempo really a “Presto Possible”–as fast as possible?), injects the Chopinesque Seventh with effortless lyricism, solidly dispatching the largely chordal, sometimes fugal Eighth (a style pronounced in Gulda’s other works such as For Rico), effortlessly negotiating the Ninth’s tricky left-hand ostinato and catchy, repetitive melody (though Gulda seems to have run out of ideas on how to land the plane at the very end), and putting some musical sense into the odd (and oddly unsatisfying) Tenth.  At any rate, despite the fact that the quality of the pieces vary, it’s a crime that the gems in this series–tuneful, catchy, entertaining–aren’t played more often, at least in encores.

Glenn Gould’s works, however, are not as tuneful, catchy, or entertaining.  Gould’s atonal short pieces (generally lasting around a minute each) resemble those by the Second Viennese School in terms of harmony, texture and brevity, while the Piano Sonata’s highly advanced tonality (i.e. very ambiguous, though occasionally some tonalities are established) resembles late Shostakovich.  Only the famous So You Want to Write a Fugue?, here arranged by Grynyuk for piano, is largely tonal, yet without the wacky lyrics of the original, a dimension of the work’s meaning is lost.  Grynyuk seems to be convinced by Gould’s idiom as he renders the works with considerable enthusiasm;  I must confess that I was not particularly won over.

Piano Classics has yet again delivered a recording of considerable realism and clarity, capturing the bright-sounding tone of the Yamaha used without a shred of harshness or glare.  If I have a slight complaint it concerns the rather short playing time of 54:38:  surely Gulda’s Prelude and Fugue, and/or For Rico/Paul, could have filled in the space.  Nevertheless, and despite the reservations I have for Gould’s music, this is an album to cherish for the Gulda alone.


  • Album name:  Sasha Grynyuk plays Gould and Gulda
  • Performers:  Sasha Grynyuk (piano)
  • Label:  Piano Classics PCL0043
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  54:38

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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