The year was 1955. Three things happened: Albert Einstein died, and Glenn Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations.
It is difficult to describe the impact of the second event, in part because I was a fetus at the time. (The third event, of course, was my birth.) But I will try. For those of us—beatniks, philistines, fetuses—who thought of classical music as something powdered and periwigged, that slab of vinyl struck with the force of a meteor. The stegosaurs who played Bach as if he were Lawrence Welk sniffed the heady, pomade-purged air and keeled, metaphorically, over. The Cretaceous Age of Music had ended. The Age of Gould had begun.
We hear a lot about meteoric careers, but Gould's—his concert career—really was. In 1964, at the height and breadth of his fame, he renounced the stage to devote himself to making records. Two years later he set forth the method to his madness in an essay in High Fidelity titled "The Prospects of Recording." In prose of a puckish fustiness as distinctive as his playing, he made three predictions: One: that recording would supplant live performance. Two: that much of the real action, musically speaking, would take place in the studio. Three: that, as technologies of sound manipulation got better and cheaper, the line between artist and audience would be smudged and maybe even—in a distant, Gouldtopian future—erased.
At last count Gould is two for three, which beats the hell out of Nostradamus, Ezekiel, and St. John the Divine, despite their far greater fudge factors and grace periods. Sampling, mashups, remixes, the laptop studio; the recognition, at long last, of the art I've called "phonography"—prophecies Two and Three have come true in spades, most strikingly in the realm of popular music (about which Gould had relatively little to say). Prophecy One, though, looks dead wrong.
Over the past eight years, concert ticket sales have doubled. For the average musician, recording has never replaced live performance as a way of paying the rent, and in the post-Napster age—unless you're a superstar or a studio regular—making a living from records is harder than ever.
All of this goes double for a classical player. Even if a young pianist can get people to consider paying for her recording of the Goldbergs, as opposed to downloading it from a P2P network or burning it from a friend's copy, she has to compete with several hundred versions listed on Amazon, including 28 editions of Gould's four recordings—to say nothing (or very little) of Gould's ghost recreating his '55 version on a computer-assisted Yamaha Disklavier.
I'm as tough a sell as any. Perhaps because of my impressionable age at the time of its release, I seem to have imprinted on Gould's '55 disk. Nothing—not Murray Periaha's refinement, not Maria Tipo's grace, not even Gould's more spacious 1981 revision, the eerie capstone and aria da capo to his career—could shake my allegiance. Until, that is, last fall.
That was when I turned on my radio and heard Variation 13 played in a way I'd never heard it played before: pensively, wistfully, with an ebb and flow as natural as breathing. (For comparison, here is No. 13 in Gould's '55 reading.) I did not, as they say, touch that dial until I had heard the last 17 variations, the return of the Sarabande on which all 30 are based, and an interview with the pianist, a 34-year-old Brooklyn native named Simone Dinnerstein.
Remember the name: You'll be hearing it often, usually mispronounced. (She says her last name with a steen, Brooklyn-style, and her first name with a supernumerary uh, Berlin style; if you have a problem with this, take it up with her father, painter and Brooklyn cultural fixture Simon Dinnerstein.)
She'd made the recording in March of 2005, on her own initiative, with friends helping to defray the $15,000 tab. It had done wonders for her career: won her a contract with a major management company, solo gigs with major orchestras, recitals at major halls in New York, London, and Paris. Yet—in a most un-Gouldian twist—it had yet to be picked up by a record label.