Monday, 2 March 2009

A Romance On Three Legs / Book Review

By Katie Hafner
Published by Bloomsbury
Hardcover / 261 Pages
$41.56 at Books Kinokuniya
Rating ****

An edited version of this review was published in The Sunday Times on 1 March 2009.

Much has been written about the eccentric genius of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982), his premature retirement from public performance, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, chronic fear of infection and flying, programming quirks and visionary ideals. New York Times journalist Katie Hafner’s delightful little account is essentially a love story about Gould and the only Steinway Grand (designated CD 318 by Steinway’s Concert Division) on the North American continent that could satisfy his extremely finicky demands.

There are three legs to this tale; the pianist’s own prodigious childhood, the piano’s painstakingly hand-crafted beginnings, and the little-known story of visually-impaired piano technician Verne Edquist who helped cement this uneasy but miraculous relationship. The respective chapters are titled Toronto, Astoria (the site of Steinway’s sweatshop in Queens) and Saskatchewan, the unlikely locations where each party developed and blossomed.

Gould’s often prickly relations with pianos, piano technicians (including one - the unfortunate Bill Hupfer - who “maimed” him) and the Steinway company itself are shelled out in sufficient but not exhaustive detail. A lot may be learnt from Gould’s own complex and contradictory personal issues, many of his own creation. The myth that he was homosexual or asexual is quashed, and for the first time in print, the name of his paramour – a wife of a famous composer and pianist-conductor – is named. Fidelity was not one of his strong suits, when it came to women, pianos, piano technicians and piano companies.

Unlike established Gould biographies by Otto Friedrich, Kevin Bazzana and Peter Ostwald, Hafner’s take has no appendices, tables or discographies, but makes for much breezy reading even for the non-musician. There are no happy endings for both piano and pianist here.
CD 318's accidental destruction during transport was a genuine body blow to Gould, and his own investigations into the issue read - for a short while - like a mystery novel, but the outcome was ultimately anti-climactic. Gould's own demise from a cerebral haemorrhage was equally banal, but is certainly convinced that the depression left by his untimely death was an enormous one.

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