Byrd: ‘Sellinger’s round’  [5’42”]

Glenn Gould, piano

03 The young Glenn Gould

The young Glenn Gould and pupil: duet for piano two hands, two paws

Another of my great musical heroes, this one more widely shared, is the Canadian Glenn Herbert Gould (1932–82), for whom the word ‘maverick’ might have been coined.  His many eccentricities – overcoat and gloves firmly on in the recording studio despite the high temperatures he insisted on, playing only if seated (nose over the keys) on a certain low, uncomfortable-looking old chair made by his father, renouncing public performance at the age of 31, a tendency to intellectualize the work of Petula Clark, and so on – are fascinating but also distracting, and we should try to get over them even if he couldn’t.  (An effective antidote is available.)  Nor should they be too readily bundled up with his provocative views on performance, some of which seemed eccentric at the time, merely prescient or even commonsensical now.  He saw, for example, little point in performing or recording a piece without having something quite significantly new to impart about it, which if nothing else comes as refreshing in an age of every conductor and his dog’s complete Mahler cycle.

Gould shares with Munrow, Maria Callas, Jacqueline du Pré and Dennis Brain, to name but four, the unmanufacturable ability to be vividly present in the musical moment, every musical moment, from first note to last of a performance.  This allows him to transcend five centuries, and the notion of period authenticity, in this spellbinding interpretation of a wonderful set of variations by the mighty William Byrd (1539 or 1540–1623), itself transcending a pretty dance tune, probably Irish in origin.  It would make sense.  For ‘Sellinger’ read ‘St Leger’, a probable reference to Henry VIII’s Lord Deputy (read ‘Enforcer’) for Ireland, Sir Anthony of that ilk.  Gould’s notorious humming along – another of those foibles we must try not to let distract us, though it’s sometimes very hard – is here kept in check, surfacing only in the later stages (listen closely, there he is shortly after the coda-like final variation begins at 4’42”).  Personally, I could listen to this on a loop for all eternity, for Gould’s quicksilver trills in particular and his meltingly lyrical delivery in general.

The opening round (or ‘rownde’, as it would have been) comprises two strains, each immediately repeated, the switch from one to the other coming at 0’14”.  Here are the times at which Mr Byrde’s eight variations of it, each imperiously characterized by Mr Goulde in this track from a wondrous CD (an exotic beast indeed – it’s half Byrd, half Gibbons), kick in:

0’35”     —     1’09”     —     1’42”     —     2’15”     —     2’51”     —     3’23”     —     4’03”     —     4’42”

Note in passing the closeness of the resulting intervals to the duration of the original tune, all between 33 and 40 seconds – no great shrinking or expanding here in the manner of variation sets from later centuries.

For a different take on this and indeed all Byrd’s keyboard works – a corpus up there with Bach’s and Beethoven’s, in my book – I can’t recommend too highly Davitt Moroney’s peerless, superbly-documented seven-disc survey using several instruments, tragically not on Spotify but available from Amazon and iTunes. (Gould himself, on the other hand, is extremely well represented on Spotify.)

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