Is Gould still thought to be some species of eccentric? He has never struck me that way, at least as a musician. Where he was certainly unusual was in being willing to experiment in his interpretations, and this particular `Emperor' gives us a few examples of what he was liable to do when he felt like it. The famous opening flourishes are not flourishes at all here, but are picked over slowly as if Gould were improvising. Add to that some trills that are not my idea of trills either, just plain semiquavers, and we have come to the end of a very short list of features that might be characterised as definitely non-standard. The basic speeds adopted in the first and last movements are certainly on the slow side too, but without having checked I seem to recall that Rubinstein used to take the first movement at a rather similar pace, and plenty of soloists (Ashkenazy comes to mind) are moderato-merchants in the finale.
It's not exactly the outer limits, so one issue we need to decide for ourselves is how well we like the way Gould (with Stokowski - let's not be forgetting him) handles what is for the most part quite a normal approach to the concerto. The other is, of course, the question of the special features, and so far as I am concerned they make an interesting change but nothing I would want to see adopted more widely. Indeed I should be surprised if Gould himself standardised them even for his own performances. I was careful a moment ago to talk about `basic' speeds in the outer movements, because there is a fair amount of rise and fall in the pulse, sometimes seeming to originate with the soloist but more often with the conductor, as if he were reminding young Mr Gould, in a very nice way, not to lose the basic thread. In fact between them they handle this matter rather attractively, as if they were comfortable with each other, giving a pleasant impression of spontaneity.
However the impression that I most want to emphasise is the feeling of `quality' about the whole event. Give or take anyone's view regarding Gould's interpretation of this (or any) classic, he was a player among players of the piano. He was no great enthusiast for Beethoven, but one feature of Beethoven's style that is completely unique is what Tovey calls `the peculiar brilliance of Beethoven's irregular runs', and I'm not sure I ever heard this feature make as much impact as it makes in Gould's hands here. Just listen to some of the famous chromatic scales in the first movement, and to one or two pieces of similar phrasing in the finale, and I'm sure you will hear quite clearly what I mean. Again, for sheer professionalism it would be hard to beat the precision with which Gould dovetails his phrasing into the orchestral entries. Another A++ goes to the two magnificent passages in the first movement where triplet semiquavers in the right hand are played against a powerful descending sequence of staccato triplet quavers in the left. Gould can mount the podium along with Serkin and Michelangeli for his triumphant despatch of this rhythmic challenge, without the sense of nervousness that afflicts many performers, and no wonder.
Quality is not the soloist's sole prerogative either. We have a great conductor here, and obviously a fine orchestra, whoever `The American Symphony Orchestra' were in real life. First impressions count, and this recording captures that unique first chord as few can have done in 1966. It is completely unmistakable, is it not? Try to get your musical friends to reproduce it on the piano and/or account for its special sound, and see how many know that there is no B flat in it. As usual in the 60's and 70's the solo is recorded too close to the microphone, but taking that as read I found a remarkably rich and strong orchestral sound, the confidence of the players answering the fighting spirit of the composer as he struggled to save the remnants of his hearing in 1809. Taking the entire ensemble as one, you may well find on this disc the most beautiful account of the slow movement that you have ever heard.
There is what might, I suppose, be called a liner note, but it is only the sleeve note from the original LP photoreduced to fit a cd and consequently in micro-print. What it says I can't tell you, because although my eyesight remains surprisingly good for my age, this note begins `When Ludwig van Beethoven...', and that was as far as I would have wanted to read in any typeface. However I am not through with Mr Gould and the Emperor Concerto, because I have just learned that there is another account by him this time partnered by Krips and the Buffalo S O. Rumour has it that this performance is of a very different nature, so, if you have been, thanks for listening this far, and I shall be back with news of how the alternative strikes me.