Glenn Gould’s piano takes a place of honour at the NAC

Photograph by Bruno Schlumberger

Angela Hewitt stretches her fingers, runs them effortlessly across the keyboard and in seconds appears lost in the music.

She pauses.

“It feels the same as it did 26 years ago,” she reports. “It still has its own unique character — a little like Gould’s playing. Very clear.”

Hewitt, among the finest pianists of her generation, last played Glenn Gould’s piano in 1986, four years after the great pianist’s death and the year after she had won the prestigious International Bach Piano Competition held in his memory.

The road-worn Steinway Gould came to regard as almost human, and often insisted on taking on tour at great expense, is arguably Canada’s most celebrated musical instrument.

For the past 30 years, the piano and Gould’s equally famous rickety chair have been under the care of Library and Archives Canada, to whom it was bequeathed with the proviso it be played.

Over the years, it has been used by jazz, classical, folk and even rock musicians in concerts in Library and Archives’ auditorium, often eliciting comments of awe from performers thrilled to be playing on the keyboard on which Gould made his magic.

Now, more than two years after it was last seen in public, the piano is about to reappear, this time to be permanently displayed, with the chair, in the mezzanine of the National Arts Centre. The piano has been in storage since last fall being readied for its new home.

Which explains how Hewitt, born and raised in Ottawa, came to play it again after 26 years.

She’s used to performing on the stages of the world’s finest concert halls, but sportingly agreed to play the Gould Steinway in its cramped temporary resting place, a subterranean NAC storage room where the muffled noise of traffic on the Mackenzie Street Bridge was a constant accompaniment and, for Hewitt, an irritation.

She repeatedly played a minute or so from Bach’s French Suite No. 5 while a video camera filmed and a photographer clicked merrily away.

It was a promotional performance-cum-photo opportunity for an audience of half a dozen. Monday begins Angela Hewitt Week in Ottawa, which culminates next Sunday with a free screening at the NAC of her winning 1985 Bach competition followed by a more elaborate $100-a-head reception. On Friday evening at Christ Church Cathedral, she will perform the music of Robert Schumann that is featured on her new CD.

But first there’s the Steinway, the piano Gould found by accident in Eaton’s department store in Toronto where it had, more or less, been retired after a career as a loaner to musicians passing through the city.

Gould once described his relationship with the piano as a “romance on three legs,” a phrase that became the title of a 2008 book by former New York Times reporter Katie Hafner, who told how the pianist searched and badgered Steinway for years before finding the “perfect” instrument in his hometown.

It’s possible, says Hafner, that Gould played the piano in 1946 at Massey Hall in Toronto when he was a 13-year-old prodigy. In any event, he was alone in June 1960 when he wandered into the Eaton’s music department and began playing Steinway No. CD318.

“He recognized this piano,” wrote Hafner. “He knew he had played it before many years earlier … For all those years, he had scoured New York, not Toronto, for the perfect piano. And here it was.”

Hewitt, 53, says Gould wanted a sound that was a little like a harpsichord.

“It’s very easy to play and has a very quick action, which you need for Bach,” she says. “It’s not the velvety sound you would want for playing Schubert.”

Hewitt never met Gould nor saw him play, but he once called the CBC while she was performing a live radio concert to inquire who was playing.

“His father told me that when that when Gould heard Bach played on the radio if it wasn’t him then he knew it was me,” says Hewitt. “He could recognize my style.”

Not only Gould recognized Hewitt’s style as something special.

“At her imaginative best, she can hold her own with the great pianists of our time,” wrote the late Citizen music critic Jacob Siskind, who had tracked Hewitt’s career since she was a young girl winning music competitions across the city and province.

Hewitt believes the Gould piano deserves its place in Canadian music folklore.

“It’s an historical monument — it’s an important relic,” she says. “But I wouldn’t take it out on tour. I think it’s had its travelling years.”

The instrument, as it should be, was an extension of Gould, says Hewitt.

“He just happen to sit very low so the piano was more immediate to him than most pianos. He had this great contact not just with the piano but also with all the inner workings of it.”

The Steinway has had its bumps and bruises — mostly notably when it was dropped at an Eaton’s loading bay in the early 1970s and barely survived. In fact, the piano was never fully restored to Gould’s satisfaction, and after it came to the Archives in 1982, changes were made.

“Gould was very particular about the action,” says Maureen Nevins, a musical historian at Library and Archives, “so it had to be modified for other pianists to play on.”

For details about Angela Hewitt’s VIP reception next Sunday call 613-726-7984 or email fbmacdonnell@sympatico.ca. Tickets for her Christ Church Cathedral performance are available through www.chamberplayers.ca

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