Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Glenn_Gould_bachThere is a place in the history of musical performance where that history becomes legend. This is pertinent here because we are talking about one of those legends, Glenn Gould performing J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. (There are other legendary interpreters of the Goldbergs: Wanda Landowska on harpsichord and Rosalyn Turek on piano, the latter of whom in turn influenced the young Gould. These three inhabit a space that, thanks to the marvels of modern technology, mere mortals can visit — but, alas, it can only be a visit.)

Bach’s Goldberg Variations occupy a somewhat anomalous place in his oeuvre: he wasn’t big on theme-and-variations compositions, having produced only one other such work in his long and fecund career. Unfortunately, his feelings toward this form are forever lost in the mists of time — he left no record of his opinion on this matter. The towering irony in this particular work is that it was commissioned by Count Kaiserling, Russian ambassador to the Saxon Electoral Court, where Bach was then court composer, as a bedtime sedative, to be played by his own resident musician, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, one of Bach’s pupils. (Just imagine Beethoven or Stravinsky accepting a commission for a sonic sleeping pill.) That may have something to do with my own reaction to the Goldbergs: I tend to zone out while listening to them. They are not my favorite Bach. However, the Goldbergs, recognized as one of the great contributions to the keyboard literature, are somewhat beyond my likes or dislikes.

As for Gould’s performance, the version presented here is his 1955 recording, which is itself a legend: let it suffice to say that, after being greeted by reactions from wild enthusiasm to dumbstruck wonder (figuratively speaking), it has never been out of print in the fifty years since its release. In a musical culture besotted with ephemerality (and one in which “classical” music plays less and less of a role), that is perhaps barely credible, but certainly indicative of the stature of this performance.

And it is a magnificent performance. Gould brought a depth of perception to this work that is hard to describe, and perhaps marks one of the key differences between his rendering and that of Landowska, as well as one of the key issues in performance: the harpsichord, Landowska’s favored instrument, has vanishingly small capability for dynamics — one either strikes the keys hard for loud, or softly, for not quite so loud. The piano, on the other hand, is capable of a vast dynamic range as well as tonal colors that are beyond the harpsichord’s capability. Gould brought all of these possibilities into play in this recording, and it is beautiful. On the other hand, one of Landowska’s primary goals was authenticity, which was behind her push to bring the harpsichord into the modern world; Gould’s performance on the piano is necessarily a “modern” approach. My own attitude toward this sort of thing is that it can be highly enlightening to hear older music as its composer might have conceived it, but if it is to remain a living heritage, each generation must find its own entry point and its own reaction to any given work, which is simply my way of saying I treasure them both.

Speaking of the marvels of modern technology, this disc is not a “reissue” strictly speaking of what was widely considered one of the last great monaural recordings. The technology behind this one is purely twenty-first century: according to the information provided, the original recording was fed through software that dissected it, analyzing and separating the elements — duration of the notes, the velocity of key strikes, and so forth — separated it from the inevitable noise of the original recording process, and performed it again on a computer-enhanced piano. I have to say there is no sense of a recording from the 1950s being remastered and coded into a CD — the sound is fresh and immediate, and without going back and listening to the original LP side-by-side with this recording (since I don’t have the LP anyway), I’m willing to take the producers’ word for it. It is a very well executed recording. It also contains two versions of the performance, one for “stereo surround” equipment and one for regular binaural stereo specifically for headphones.

If you are going to include in your collection a version of the Goldberg Variations — and you really should — this is obviously one of the two or three candidates. And of course, if you want recordings by Landowska or Turek, you have to go out and find them.

(Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2007 [orig. Columbia Masterworks, 1955])

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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