If the songs and piano pieces of Arnold Schoenberg were cool, calm, and completely objective, Glenn Gould's recordings of them would be ideal. In the songs -- the Zwei Gesänge, Op. 1; the Vier Lieder, Op. 2; and the 15 songs of Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten, Op. 15 -- Gould's detached touch, precise articulation, and very discrete use of the sustain pedal reveals every note of the accompaniment with astounding clarity. In the piano pieces -- the Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11; the Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19; the Fünf Klavierstücke, Op. 23; the Suite for Klavier, Op. 25; and the Zwei Klavierstücke, Op. 33 A & B -- Gould's dry tone, restrained dynamics, and disinclination to apply the sustain pedal creates virtual x-rays of the score with astonishing lucidity. And for those who prize clarity and lucidity above all else in Schoenberg, Gould's performances will be perfect.
But for those who prize emotion and expression above all else in Schoenberg, Gould's performances will be acutely disappointing. To them, the brutal dissonances, harsh harmonies, jagged textures, abrupt transitions, and violent rhythms of Schoenberg's music demand anguish and expressivity from the performers, and this Gould resolutely refuses to provide. Some might argue that hearing all the notes is the paramount criteria for any performance, and that one can indubitably hear everything in Gould's performances. But others might reply that it's possible to have both lucidity and expressivity and point to Maurizio Pollini's recordings of Schoenberg's piano pieces as proof. And still others might point out that one can hear too much in Gould's performances, to wit, Gould's own moaning vocalizations behind and beneath the music he's playing. Though his fans have learned to tolerate this eccentricity, many others have not, and listeners fresh to Gould should be warned of it beforehand.
As for the singers, bass-baritone Donald Gramm's tired tone makes it hard to listen to the Zwei Gesänge, soprano Ellen Faull's wobbly intonation makes it difficult to listen to the Vier Lieder, and mezzo-soprano Helen Vanni's screechy attack makes it almost impossible to listen to Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten. Recorded between 1959 and 1965, Columbia's stereo sound here is as cool and objective as Gould's performances.