Glenn Gould's two Goldberg Variations.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Oct. 7 2002 10:30 AM

There and Bach Again

The revealing new release that pairs Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations.

With a couple of trivial exceptions, plus one that's absolutely gigantic, pianist Glenn Gould never recorded the same piece twice. Unlike, say, Rudolf Serkin, who as his ideas evolved made it a practice to revisit certain key masterpieces, Gould preferred to document one interpretation and never look back.

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This comports with his decision, taken in 1964, not to perform in public any more. Unlike every other virtuoso of the past 300 years, Gould didn't have to go from city to city with the same bundle of dependable war horses in his satchel, playing them over and over. Instead, he would occasionally venture out of his hermitic Toronto apartment very late at night, drive to a studio a few miles away, and there, working in virtual solitude, record and edit a piece until he was satisfied. And that would be that.

The one significant exception to this rule is Bach's Goldberg Variations, which he recorded twice. The first recording, from 1955, was his major-label debut and instantly made him an international star. The second, from 1981, was, eerily enough, his swan song, the last recording he ever made. Critical opinion of the first release is close to unanimous: It's considered a milestone in Bach performance and one of the greatest keyboard recordings ever made. The second enjoys a somewhat rockier reputation, although it has its passionate champions.

When I first heard this second performance, at the time of its release, I disliked it. Gould's tempos seemed perversely slow, his policy with regard to repeats capricious, and the disc's sound quality harsh, even ugly. But that was 20 years ago. During the ensuing years, I've occasionally wondered whether it might be time for a re-evaluation.

And now Sony Classics have made the notion irresistible. They have re-released both performances in a single box, along with a third disc containing an "interview" the pianist "gave" to Washington Post critic Tim Page (the whole thing in reality scripted by Gould alone and rather unconvincingly performed by the two men), plus some interesting outtakes from the 1955 recording sessions. The box is called A State of Wonder, and its appearance qualifies as a genuine event.

The first thing one notices about it is its technical excellence. The sound of Gould I has been spruced up, and Gould II is a revelation. The sonic crudity that bothered me 20 years ago resulted from the Sony engineers' inexperience with digital technology; for this re-release, they have located analogue masters that were made simultaneously with the digital and painstakingly edited them to match the version supervised by Gould. The results are glorious.

And the performances? Contrasting the two makes for a fascinating exercise. They're very different, but in neither could the pianist be anyone but Gould. All his distinguishing qualities are evident in both: clarity, rhythmic verve, understated ardor, precision. And while I retain some of my misgivings about the second release, it's a far more compelling interpretation than I recognized at the time.

Not that things get off to an auspicious start. Here is the beginning of the Aria in Gould I, taken, convincingly, at a stately saraband pace. Gould II, on the other hand, is so maddeningly slow it almost sounds like a stunt. Few musicians other than Gould would be able to sustain the line at this tempo, but it's unclear why anyone would want to. And here's another bit of the Aria worth noting, although it's an ornamental detail so microscopic some might consider it trivial. The exquisite way Gould I rolls the E minor chord downward in the 11th bar makes the moment a casual, ephemeral epiphany. Now listen to the same moment in Gould II: It's fussy and precious by comparison.

By the first variation, things have improved considerably. Gould I sets out at a spanking pace, with wonderful brio. Gould II is slower, somehow simultaneously more aggressive and less swaggering, but it still has impressive energy and boasts—as does the entire set—a left hand of stunning clarity and definition. It lacks much of the charm of the older performance but offers compensations.

And in the third variation—the first in the series of canons appearing every third variation—Gould I and II are both wonderful. The older performance has speed and lightness going for it, the second an autumnal grace and the marvelous clarity Gould seems to privilege above all other qualities in this traversal.