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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Goldberg Variations / Partita No. 5 (Gould) (1954-55)
The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould
burst onto the world’s musical stage
in January 1955 when he made his
United States recital début in
Washington D.C. with Bach’s Goldberg
Variations. His 1955 recording of the
work is one of the most important
and influential piano discs of the
second half of the twentieth century,
leading not only to a wider
appreciation of Bach’s keyboard
works by the general public but to a
fundamental re-appraisal of how Bach
should be played.When the recording
was released the American Record
Guide headed its review with ‘The
Record Début of Glenn Gould a
Keyboard Genius.’ With its great
attention to clarity and detail, little
use of the sustaining pedal, and
sometimes rapid or extreme tempos,
this vital and exciting performance is
the complete antithesis to the‘sewing-machine’ style of Bach playing.
I hesitated to use the hoary cliché "classic," even to describe this wondrous musical experience. But that's still what it is. How many lives has this recording changed? Invariably for the the better, I should say. Even those who reject its maniacal perfectionism and hear calculation at the expense of expressivity acknowledge the sheer creativity of Gould's imagination.
I greatly prefer this version to the later recording. There are certain artists who seem to embody specific dimensions of life almost perfectly: Mozart, youthful innocence; later Beethoven, reflective maturity; Prokofieff, rebellious youthfulness. Part of the magic of Gould's performance is that he unites all of these, and more. You can still hear Gould impetuously sweeping aside the somber piety of playing Bach on the (staid sounding) harpsichord, insisting on his own right to find his own vision in the music, regardless of the claims of authenticity. And, for all the studied, almost frightening precision of his attack to the keyboard, he finds a cornucopia of emotional range unmatched by his detractors and competitors--and, sadly, by his later, crankier self. Here are brilliance, dazzling energy, incredible rhythmic dynamism; but also kindness, wonder, and indescribable sweetness. Like a Mahler symphony, this astounding musical kaleidoscope comprises an entire world of emotion and experience.
It may be that the influence of this performance is a mixed blessing. It may have inspired some to exalt speed and precision over musicality, or put their own eccentricities ahead of the composer's intentions. But even these consequences, if they are true, pale in comparison to what this radiant achievement has taught generations of listeners about what is possible in music--and in life. The world would be an incomparably poorer place without the inexhaustible freshness of its revelations.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations • Partita No. 5
Bach wrote his Goldberg Variations BWV 988 in 1741 and published them as a culmination to his Clavier-Übung , a collection that included his major works for solo keyboard including the six Partitas . Bach was nearly sixty years old when he wrote this work and the only great keyboard work to follow the composition of the Goldberg Variations was the Art of Fugue BWV 1080 . Bach simply titled the work 'Aria with variations for harpsichord with two keyboards', and the story that this long work was written for the amelioration of Count von Keyserlingk's insomnia has no credible foundation. The Count's resident harpsichord-player, however, was Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a highly talented pupil of Bach who no doubt would have been familiar with the composition, and the title may have evolved from his name after the work was published. It is also possible that Bach wrote the work for Goldberg to play to his master Keyserlingk and fashioned its technical style specifically with Goldberg's virtuoso capabilities in mind. These variations are notable for Bach's use of virtuosic keyboard writing, canon, and intricate form whilst the virtuoso writing style of some of the variations may have been influenced by the keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti. The Aria (a Sarabande from Anna Magdalena's Clavierbüchlein of 1725) forms the harmonic rather than melodic structure on which the work is based. The fascinating form has the thirty variations grouped into three sets of ten with a canon at every third variation (each time rising by one step of an interval) these canons culminating in the quodlibet (Variation 30, which incorporates two popular song melodies), before the serenity of the original Aria is repeated to close this masterpiece of keyboard-writing and, in effect, begin it again, as the work has come full circle and reached the place where it began.
The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was born in 1932 and it was with Bach's Goldberg Variations that he burst onto the world's musical stage in 1955. He had been appearing on radio and television in Canada from the early 1950s but in January 1955 made his United States recital début in Washington D.C. with this work. The day after his New York début, he signed a contract with Columbia records and recorded with that label for the rest of his life. One of the last recordings he made was another version of the Goldberg Variations , recorded in 1981 just before his death.
Most of Gould's radio broadcasts were made in his home town of Toronto , but the performance of the Partita No. 5 in G major BWV 829 from 4 October 1954, was recorded in Montreal for the International Service of Radio Canada. It was a favourite work of his early years when touring Canada , and he played it at his United States début in Washington with the Goldberg Variations . He recorded the work for Columbia in 1957.
The mid-1950s were a time of improvement and evolvement, the time of Nicholas Ray's film Rebel without a Cause , when the teenager's voice was being heard for the first time. It was the Bach playing of the youthful 23-year-old Glenn Gould that caught the public's imagination at this time; it was a kind of Bach style that had not been heard before, with great attention to clarity and detail, little use of the sustaining pedal, and sometimes rapid or extreme tempos. With hindsight of more than fifty years, this recording can be seen not as the work of an iconoclast who was out to shock the periwigged Father Bach and his devotedly reverential followers, but more a sweeping away of the accumulated detritus of previous generations who thought that the work was merely an instructive exercise in form. This idea, combined with Gould's energy and drive, allows the work to emerge not as a restored masterpiece, but as something altogether new yet somehow familiar - vital, exciting, fresh, and brimming with joyful pleasure in its existence. Familiar, because at the same time Gould never gave the feeling that he was striving for effect in his Bach playing; he was always totally committed to his interpretation which was fully supported by his thoroughly researched ideas.
Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations , however, needs to be put into perspective. Wanda Landowska made the first complete recording of the work on the harpsichord in November 1933 ( Naxos 8.110313). Before Gould's recording was released in 1956, other piano versions already available on LP included those by Rosalyn Tureck and Jörg Demus, and it is interesting to note that after Gould's recording was released, Tureck recorded the work again in 1957 for EMI. Tureck's version, however, is altogether different, using slower tempos and observing every repeat, making for a work of nearly eighty minutes in duration (as opposed to Gould's 38 minutes). Following that, maybe as a reaction to these two new recordings on the piano, the next six or seven recordings of the Goldberg Variations to be released were made on the harpsichord. It should also be remembered that the Goldberg Variations were performed on the piano in public long before Gould appeared on the scene. In London in the 1920s Busoni performed his own edition of the work (in the preface of which he wrote, '…I considered it expedient, for public performance, to suppress entirely some of the variations') and his pupil Egon Petri also played it (in one recital at the Wigmore Hall programmed with Mozart's C minor Fantasy and Beethoven's Piano Sonatas Op. 110 and Op. 111 ). During the 1930s it was heard in the concert hall performed on the piano by Rudolf Serkin, Philip Lévi, Eduard Erdmann and Claudio Arrau, whilst in 1938 Wilhelm Backhaus included the work in a programme at the Queen's Hall with two other formidable sets of variations – the Diabelli Variations Op. 120 by Beethoven and the Paganini Variations Op. 35 by Brahms.
Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations has been referred to as one of the most important and influential piano discs of the second half of the twentieth century and some would say of the whole century. Its influence on Bach playing on the piano cannot be overestimated as any pianist who played Bach after this recording's release altered their style either consciously or unconsciously. On the positive side this led to a wider appreciation of Bach's keyboard works by the general public; on the negative side it spawned a whole generation of imitators who could be classed as the 'sewing-machine' perpetrators of Bach playing.
When Gould's recording was released the American Record Guide made their opinion plain by heading their review 'The Record Début of Glenn Gould a Keyboard Genius.' In Britain the Gramophone found that although some of his tempos were fast, 'his is a speed connected with urgency more than with show or brilliance.'
As we listen to this important recording, Glenn Gould reminds us that Bach wrote this work 'for the enjoyment of music lovers.'
© 2007 Jonathan Summers
GREAT PIANISTS • GLENN GOULD
J. S. BACH: Partita No. 5 in G major, BWV 829
Recorded 4 October 1954 in the CBC Studios, Montreal
First issued on Canadian Broadcasting Company International Service Transcription Disc CBC 120
J. S. BACH: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Recorded 10 and 14-16 June 1955 in the Columbia 30th Street Studios, New York City
First issued on Columbia ML-5060
(Note: The momentary dropout at 0:29 in Track 7 is in the original source.)
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