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Hear Samples of Glenn Gould's Performances
of the Goldberg Variations

Happy Birthday, Bach!
By Rex Levang
March, 1999


EVERY MONTH MPR'S MUSIC DEPARTMENT asks a different individual to give us a list of five compact discs of his or her choosing. The criteria are strictly personal, and the choices cover a pretty wide gamut. But several discs come up again and again: Carlos Kleiber conducting Beethoven symphonies; Miles Davis and colleagues on their album Kind of Blue; and Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations.

What makes this the most famous Bach recording ever made? It doesn't hurt that it's a brilliant performance of a musical masterpiece, but it's been helped out by some other factors. To start with, the glamor of the soloist - in Gould's case, a kind of anti-glamor glamor, but no less potent for all that.

Classical performers, compared with their counterparts in pop and rock, are a boring, monochrome bunch. They play the same music, have the same opinions, behave the same at concerts. It doesn't take much originality to stand out in this crowd and Gould had it by the bushel. He was reclusive, eccentric, obsessive. He avoided some composers (Chopin, Rachmaninoff), trashed others (Mozart). He had some notorious mannerisms: crouching over the keyboard, singing to himself during recording sessions. Most famously, at 31, he quit giving recitals, proclaiming that it was through recordings, not public performances, that musicians would reach their audiences in the future. As usual in this kind of relationship, the public, feeling itself ignored, only grew more fascinated.

Then there is the music. It's rarely acknowledged but true that the classical-music world spends more time paying reverence to Bach than actually listening to all of his music. In sheer terms of bulk, Bach is mainly a composer of organ music and sacred choral music - a little too remote from the modern liking for big symphonies and warmly melodic operas. But in writing the Goldbergs, Bach created an entry in that charmed circle of pieces (Beethoven's Seventh and Schubert's String Quintet are some others) that satisfy the beginner, the aesthete, and the musical marketplace equally.

Sample Gould's Goldberg Variations

And lastly the brilliance and confidence of the music-making itself. Let's celebrate Bach's birthday by looking at just a few samples: (For streaming audio help, see How to Listen.)

Aria and Variation 1. The theme that the Variations are built on. Gould recorded the Aria twenty times before he was satisfied he had struck the right note of simplicity. The following variation Gould described as a "precipitous outburst ... which abruptly curtails the preceding tranquility."

Listen - Aria    Listen - Variation 1

Variation 2. The characteristic sound of Glenn Gould at the piano - alert, incisive, rhythmic.

Listen - Variation 2

Variation 18. One of the things that made Gould a great Bach player was his ability to sort out different strands of counterpoint effortlessly.

Listen - Variation 18

Variation 20. Compound virtuosity. Music that's tricky at the double keyboards of Bach's harpsichord, trickier when played on the single one of the piano.

Listen - Variation 20

Variation 25. An intense, inward movement traditionally nicknamed the "Black Pearl." Gould probably would have hated the nickname, but he honors some of its spirit nonetheless.

Listen - Variation 25

Recording Information
Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations in June of 1955 in New York. Often reissued, this recording is currently available as CBS 38479 (compact disc and cassette).

It is not the only Gould recording of the Goldbergs. In 1981, the year before his death, Gould made another studio recording of the work (CBS 37779). In addition, in his early years he performed it in concerts and broadcasts, and tapes of these performances have since shown up as commercial recordings, sonic warts and all.

These recordings are available from
Public Radio MusicSource
Minnesota Public Radio