Book - A Romance on Three Legs, Katie Hafner

It was pure coincidence that I was recently reading A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for a Perfect Piano by Katie Hafner, especially since I read about Henry Z. Steinway's death just as I was getting to the part of the book which talked about him. I found the book to be a quick yet entertaining read, especially since it dips into related topics such as the history of the piano, the artistic goals of tuning, and descriptions of how a piano is manufactured. As the title implies, the book centers around a particular piano, a Steinway which was labelled CD 318. Hafner tells how the piano was made during WWII and explains how it and Gould were finally brought together.

Glenn Gould made a splash when he first recorded the Bach Goldberg Variations in 1955, and the other bookend of his career is his reinterpretation of those same Variations in 1981, the last recording he ever made. His Bach performances are technically amazing and always an interesting listen. Of course, since he tried to interpret works in his own way, they aren't all to my liking. His performance of Beethoven's Opus 57 Piano Sonata in F Minor (the Appassionata) is very slow, the first movement lasting 15 minutes (a Vladimir Horowitz recording I enjoy is about 10 minutes).

When I was young, I was in the car with my parents and we heard a piece on the radio which I was playing at the time - I believe it was the Mozart Variations in C on Ah, vous dirais-je, Maman, but I'm not positive. If I recall, that performance was also slow. Next time I saw Mr. Voorhies, we brought it up and mentioned that we thought the name was Glenn Gould. He, of course, recognized the name right away, and essentially said that was one performer it would be best to not try to mimic.

Speaking of Gould playing Mozart, I found a video of him talking about it:


You can see how he sits very low, but since he's speaking with the interviewer, he isn't as hunched over as he normally would be. You can also see the chair he always used (the same as on the book cover). It's normal for him to hum while he's playing (you can hear it on his recordings).

The book also covers in depth one of the tuners who worked tirelessly to make sure CD 318 met its owner's requirements (even tuning and regulating during a recording session), although there were other tuners who also worked on the piano. Even though I don't have as fine an ear nor as sensitive a touch as Gould, I do know that good tuners are hard to find. I once had a tuner who had an amazing ear and was extremely quick. One time as he was finishing up, he said he needed to run because his wife was waiting in the car! He ended up moving to Hawaii, so we looked for another tuner. After trying a couple and not really being satisfied, we figured it wouldn't hurt to ask Yamaha (we knew people who worked there) and came up with a tuner who was very meticulous and did an excellent job. Ends up she was the daughter of probably the most respected Yamaha technician in the States. When she couldn't make it to one tuning, she sent her father in her place!

Gould owned a Chickering which he adored because of the touch. CD 318, however, came to have an extremely even, light touch, and the sound pleased him. Unfortuantely, the piano was dropped during one move, and was never the same after that. Gould's 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations was done on a Yamaha with a touch that initially excited Gould. During the recording, he started to point out its defects, but towards the end the action seemed to get better for him.

Hafner closes the book with a story about Mary Kenedi who performed on the piano, but plays with much more vigor than Gould ever did. The wheels under the piano weren't locked, so it crept away from her during the performance, "apparently in full retreat from Kenedi's un-Gouldian repertoire". That reminds me of one time I saw Mischa Dichter perform a concerto for orchestra and two pianos; his wife was playing the other piano. At one point the piano was too far away from him, but instead of moving the bench closer, he moved the whole piano closer!