Glenn Gould was a polemic interpreter who often insisted upon his controversial readings when others found them irritating. This holds also for his studio recordings of five Beethoven's piano concertos: some of them are much more radical than Gould' live performances Glenn Gould: The Young Maverick. Live recordings of Concertos No.2 Live in Leningrad 1957 and Glenn Gould in Stockholm, 1958, No. 3 Beethoven Piano Concerto No 3/Sibelius & 5Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 / R. Strauss: Burleske / Glenn Gould survived. No live Gould's version of Concerto No. 4 is available but some details of Gould's early 1947 interpretation of this concerto are mentioned in the booklet to this album: it is maintained that in 1947 Gould modeled his interpretation of Beethoven's 4th concerto after the idol of his youth, Artur Schnabel. The 1961 studio version with Gould and Bernstein (CD 1, tracks 4-6) shows how far Gould departed from Schnabel.
Gould had ambivalent feelings to Beethoven; in Gould's own words (quoted here The Glenn Gould Edition: Ludwig Van Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Volume II (Nos. 15-18, No. 23, Nos. 30-32) and elsewhere) he disliked a deal of Beethoven's music. Certainly every great interpreter is free to like or dislike every composer, but if Beethoven may be approached critically, Gould's art may be approached critically too.
Five Beethoven's concertos were written in that order: No. 2 > No.1 > No. 3> No. 4 > No. 5. The earliest of them, No. 2, Op. 19, was written ca. 1787-89 (revised 1795), the next one, No. 1, Op. 15 - 1796-7, No. 3, Op.37 - 1803, No. 4, Op. 58 - 1805-6, No.5, Op.73, 1809-11. If one looks at the recording dates in the reviewed album, one will see that Gould recorded Beethoven concertos exactly in the order they had been written: he started the series with No. 2 (1957), added No.1 (1958), then No. 3 (1959), then No.4 (1961) and concluded with No.5 (1966). It is difficult to get rid of the impression that Gould was working into Beethoven's method and trying to decompose the style of mature Beethoven on the basis of early Beethoven. He is constantly trying to downplay concertant bravura and to emphasize contrapuntal structure of the concertos. His touch is for the most part dry and percussive and the tempos taken in Concertos Nos. 4 & 5 are defiantly slow. Gould's phrasing, his touch and in many cases also his tempos were unconventional. He did not accelerate where most other pianists did and he used to put the accents where most people did not. Somewhere his method works for me, notably in Concerto No. 1, somewhere I dislike Gould's experiments. I second the opinion of a fellow reviewer that the most successful recordings are of concertos Nos. 1, 4 and 2 (in that order). Incidentally, concertos No. 1 & 4 are paired on the first CD in this album.
Beethoven's First concerto in C, Op. 15 (CD 1, tracks 1-3), gets a stunning performance from Gould and Vladimir Golschmann (1958). In the fast movements Gould and Golschmann emphasize Haydnesque features. The orchestral opening of the first Allegro is playful, while Gould's solos attract attention by their introvert character. As usual, Gould makes an emphasis on the bass line and occasionally replaces legato with staccato. Gould's own cadence to the first movement (from ca. 10'50) confirms that Gould is not as innocent as his modest tone in the beginning suggests: this cadence is a late Romantic fugue played in accordance to the 20th century piano canons, not to the 18th century canons. Purists may find it rampageous but Gould's cadence is a brilliant short piece by itself. In the middle Largo (track 2) Gould's tone becomes more lush. The final rondo, Allegro scherzando (track 3) brings Haydnesque humour back. It consists of seven briefly changing episodes: the Quasi-Hungarian episode in A minor (Track 3, ca. 2'40-3'50) in Gould's hands is a jewel. Gould's cadence to the third movement - this time not a fugue but a short rhapsody (ca. 6'08-7'08) is even more bold and dissonant than in the first movement. In short, this is a undeniably modern view of Beethoven's First Piano Concerto, but Gould's conception is thought-of and organic.
Gould recorded three Beethoven concertos with Leonard Bernstein. From these I find their collaboration in Beethoven's 4th concerto, Op. 58 (1961) most satisfying. Gould's solos in the first movement, Allegro moderato (CD 1, track 4), have remarkable clarity but they sound rather as ruminative digressions than as responses to the development in the orchestra. I do not know whether this effect arises due to Bernstein's unwillingness to follow Gould's phrasing (there was a tension between Gould and Bernstein) or it was Gould's original conception but anyway the movement lost in its integrity. Nevertheless, Gould's playing is attractive, especially in the development episode ca. 8'48-10'47. The middle movement, Romanza: Andante con moto, is ca. two minutes slower [6'40] than an average performance [4'20-4'40]. Gould's playing here has dramatic intensity and poise lacking in the outer movements which makes this E minor Andante not a passing episode but a dramatic event. True, Gould's solo part sometimes have a late Romantic flavour reminding of Brahms's intermezzos but here the taming of the orchestra is complete. The broad tempos taken in the outer movements - [19'21] and [10'45] respectively - depend on the deliberately slow speed taken by Gould in the middle Andante. There are many great versions of Beethoven's 4th Concerto on the market - Backhaus, Schnabel, Gieseking etc. but Gould's version won't get lost.
CD 2 in the reviewed album features Concertos No. 2 in B flat (1957) and No. 3 in C minor (1959), again with Bernstein. The 2nd Concerto (CD 2, tracks 1-3) gets a good performance, less radical than Gould's approach to the 1st Concerto, but mind that Beethoven's 2nd Concerto is an earlier and less bold piece than his 1st Concerto (although Beethoven inverted their numbers by publication). The live 1957 account with Gould and Slovak  is more warm and engaged while but the studio version included here has better sounds. As for the Gould - Bernstein recording of Beethoven's 3rd concerto in C minor (CD 2, tracks 4-6), I take issue with the distinguished Editorial reviewer Jed Distler who praises it for the `regal pomp and broad rhetoric'. Regardless of what Gould himself thought of Beethoven's 3rd concerto I do not want to hear it with a pianist who sees only regal pomp and a bunch of clichés in it. Happily, a lot of pianists approached this music differently: there are great versions left by Solomon, Backhaus, Eduard Erdmann, Kempff etc. My personal favourite is Kempff-Leitner Beethoven: Die Klavierkonzerte. If you specially want to hear Beethoven's 3rd concert with Gould, try his live 1957 version with Karajan Beethoven Piano Concerto No 3/Sibelius - it is better than this studio effort.
CD 3 contains the 1966 recording of Beethoven's 5th concerto, `The Emperor', with Gould and Stokowski. It is felt that neither the conductor nor the soloist loved this concerto. Gould offered two experimental readings to Stokowski - in a very fast tempo and in a slow tempo - and Stokowski chose the slow variant: the first movement takes [22'03], the second one [9'22], the finale [11'14]. The phrasing is weird: all the E flat major clichés and the pomp in the orchestra are there but the charm and elegance characteristic of the best performances of the `Emperor' are lost.
In all cases except for the 1st concerto Gould is performing Beethoven's original cadences: for Concerto No. 3 this is not a matter-of-fact decision but it was difficult to expect a Carl Reinecke Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3 or Alkan Marc-André Hamelin Live at Wigmore Hall cadence from Gould.
The current amazon price for this album is OK. If the 3 CDs in it were issued separately in a different package I would say that CD 1 (Concertos Nos. 1 & 4) is interesting for most music lovers, CD 2 (Concertos Nos. 2 & 3) is for the collectors who wish to compare as many readings as possible, while CD 3 (Concerto No. 5) is for the most devoted Gould and Stokowski's fans and for people who on this or that reason are dissatisfied by all other performances of the `Emperor' concerto.