The notion that the myths are more interesting than the men is borne out in Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, a routine deflation of the life and times of Glenn Gould. Gould was one of the mid-century’s most prominent classical superstars who, no matter what his level of talent, had the good sense to embrace audio recording technology at the precise time American pop culture was new and fresh enough to be swept up in the possibility of committing generations’ worth of masterworks to aural permanence. (The first few years of the Grammy Awards pay testament to this, with recordings of classical works grabbing as many prominent nominations as spoken-word, comedy, and pop standards efforts.)
In most other senses, Gould seemed habitually counter to the times. He made no great social overtures to the other classical superstars of the era and, in fact, seemed to exacerbate a friendly sort of antagonism between himself and Leonard Bernstein—one which inspired a notorious pre-concert drubbing in which Bernstein, as conductor, publicly absolved himself of responsibility for Gould’s unorthodox interpretation of a Brahms concerto. He focused almost obsessively on the repertoire of Johann Sebastian Bach—that quintessentially fusty purveyor of tony, difficult counterpoint harmonies—when virtuosity, modernity, and sensationalism (on the order of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1) were what moved tickets. And when he did delve into the realm of the post-baroque, it was usually to investigate the underexposed works of Paul Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg, never the apparently vulgar likes of Chopin. He was cerebral and, no matter how much sweat poured from his brow during performances, performed from his mind more so than his fingers, which sometimes seemed as though they worked out of reflex.
Nonetheless, Gould’s debut recording with Columbia Records, his showy dissection of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, was a smash success, establishing his reputation as a pianist to be reckoned with. Of course, his little idiosyncrasies became the gild to his talent’s lily, and details as mundane as his preferred room temperature for recording became blown out of proportion, almost as if to create a misunderstood legend out of a man who really seemed, at heart, more Jimmy Stewart than J.D. Salinger. The interview subjects who promulgate Gould’s story in Genius Within often skirt around the theory that his life may have been just a teensy bit boring. Gould was, yes, an obsessive hypochondriac (the revelation of his malady diaries is brilliantly accompanied by Gould’s fastidious performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7), but he was also an allegedly straight, Protestant man playing a game deliciously defined by Vladimir Horowitz’s quip, “There are three kinds of pianists—Jewish pianists, homosexual pianists, and bad pianists.” (There are also pianists who are Martha Argerich, but that revelation was still a few years to come when Gould was peaking.)
Ultimately, Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont’s portrait of Gould is bloodless and conservative in execution, which only Gould’s harshest critics accused the pianist of embodying. For anyone who would insist the life experiences inform the performer’s art, Genius Within doesn’t offer much to support Gould’s mystique.