A State of Wonder/J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations

Gould, Glenn

album cover

A Double Take on Bach from a Musical Maverick

Before Glenn Gould, pianists usually approached the Goldberg Variations with great reverence, observing Bach's notions of structure and pace, while adding little of themselves. As a result, most recordings were kind of snoozy—fitting for a piece that, according to Bach legend, was commissioned by the insomniac Baron von Keyserling for his court harpsichordist, named Goldberg, to play in the wee hours.

A twenty-two-year-old Canadian prodigy, Gould (1932–1982) transformed this often-overlooked also-ran of the piano repertoire into a platform for thoughtful, ecstatic, intensely personal playing. On his 1955 recording debut, Gould completely gooses Goldberg. But he's never merely a brash youth. He finds singing flourishes within Bach's transitional melodies. He makes the connective tissue that links major themes almost float along. Seizing upon little bits of counterpoint that other pianists obscured, he calls attention to the almost cryptic multilayered logic Bach embedded in the initial aria and the thirty subsequent variations, which are presented in ten groups of three. Among the most illuminating of Gould's treatments are the showy, impulsive 5th Variation and the 25th Variation (some-times referred to as "Black Pearl"), which is saturated with a feeling of introspection.

This recording established Gould as an important pianistic thinker, and launched a career that ballooned to rock-star proportions. He became a mythic figure, a situation his willfully odd demeanor (he was known to mumble audibly or chuckle to himself during performances) did little to dispel. And though he was usually reluctant to revisit pieces he'd recorded in the past, Gould returned to the Goldberg shortly before his death from a massive stroke in 1982. He allegedly didn't like the liberties he'd taken with the variations as a young man, and in the liner notes to the new treatment said he wanted to consider the work's "thirty very interesting but independent-minded pieces" in terms of the "arithmetical correspondence between theme and variation."

Sure enough, the later recording—on the second disc of this double-feature—is more contemplative. The tempos are stately—when he comes upon a small idea that delights him, Gould slows down just a hair to savor it. He's still focusing on Bach's interior subtleties, but he refrains from letting his own impulses wash over them quite as often, and this detachment allows the magnificent orderliness of the work to shine through.

Genre: Classical
Released: 2002, Sony Classical
Key Tracks: From 1955: Variation 3, Variation 25. From 1981: Aria, Variation 9, Variation 10.
Collector's Note: A bonus disc includes a fifty-minute Gould interview discussing the differences between the early and late treatments.
Catalog Choice: J. S. Bach: The Art of the Fugue (Gould on church organ)
Next Stop: E. Power Biggs: The Great Preludes and Fugues, Vol. 1
After That: Jacques Loussier Trio: The Brandenburgs
Book Page: 321

Buy this Recording

Related Posts on the Blog

Five First Steps Toward an Exploration of Classical Music - August 04, 2008 at 8:57 pm

Share this page:

site design: Juxtaprose