Gould’s ‘Goldberg Variations’

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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton revels in Glenn Gould’s two recordings of the Goldberg Variations.

(Slayton) If I had to be stranded on a desert island with only one piece of music, I might choose the Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach. It’s a collection of 30 variations on an elegant theme that seems, in its brilliant variety of expression, to call up the entire range of human experience: from tragic, to comic, to bold and daring to dreamily philosophical.

I’ve long been fascinated by the piece; I’ve got – at latest count – six recordings of it by various artists. Two of those recordings, recently re-issued on CD, are especially interesting, because they are performances by the same pianist – the late Glenn Gould.

When Gould first recorded the piece in 1955, the recording immediately established him as one of the most important pianists of the 20th century. That recording of the Goldberg Variations still sizzles, 45 years later, a spectacular, bravura performance filled with dazzlingly fast runs, precise counterpoint, and, most striking of all, an intense passion that few people in 1955 associated with the keyboard works of Bach.

The virtues you think of when listening to this classic recording – its boldness, complete self-assurance, and brilliant intensity – are the virtues of youth. Gould put his 22-year-old self completely – heart, soul, and fingertips – into the performance, and the emotion and intelligence he expressed in the piece can still be heard today.

But Gould came to detest his brilliant early rendition of the piece. The first recording was too rhythmically inexact, he later indicated, too romantic, too pianistic. (An interesting criticism for a pianist!)

And so, 26 years later, Gould decided to re-record the Bach masterwork. The result is a strikingly different version of the Goldberg Variations. Calm and detached, far less passionate than his first recording, the 1981 version is, in a word, autumnal. If the vast range of human experience is encompassed in the variations, then this later recording feels like a valedictory look back at those experiences: detached, contemplative, tinged with something very much like a gentle melancholy.

Was the second recording a farewell? We will never know for sure, but on September 27, 1981, just a few days after the release of that second recording of the Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould suddenly and unexpectedly died of a stroke. The two recordings stand like columns at either end of his amazing career.

Any great work of art such as the Goldberg Variations is capable of sustaining many interpretations, each of which can increase our understanding of the work itself. And that is the case here: both interpretations are fascinating, each is valuable.

Recently reissued by Sony Classical as a set, the Glenn Gould recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations offer an opportunity to explore this great, complex piece of music, the mind of its composer, and the equally extraordinary mind of its most celebrated performer.

Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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