Glenn Gould’s “The Goldberg Variations” (1981)
In the world of recorded classical music, few figures were as multifaceted, controversial, or enigmatic as Glenn Gould. Over the course of his almost 30-year long career, he became a prolific pianist, writer, and broadcaster, and he occasionally dabbled in composing and conducting. Today he remains most well-known for his many recordings of the work of J. S. Bach. However, his ultimate career-defining recordings were “The Goldberg Variations” — recorded twice, 26 years apart. Both immediately became best-sellers in the classical genre upon release and never went out of print. While Gould’s first recording of the piece was a brilliant start to his career, his second recording of it contrasts sharply in fidelity and interpretation. With context in mind, the 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations serves as an example of the development of recording technology, as well as a sort of retrospective on Gould’s career.
About the Performer
Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was a Canadian pianist and a prodigy from an early age. He began performing in public as a teenager, but eventually stopped giving concerts in 1964 at the age of 32. He preferred recording in the studio over concertizing, and over the course of his career Gould recorded an extensive catalog of classical piano works, both solo and accompanied. While he is known primarily for his interpretations and recordings of Bach, he recorded works by a relatively diverse set of composers, including Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Schoenberg, among others. However, while he recorded music from the Baroque, Classical, and 20th century periods, he generally avoided Romantic composers, most notably Chopin and Schumann. This could be regarded as a result of his fascination with the mechanical aspect of music, rather than the purely emotional.
Gould was also notable for his many eccentricities in his behavior and playing style. He insisted upon very specific conditions both on the stage and in the studio: he required the piano to be a specific height off the ground, and sometimes brought rugs with him to further adjust it. He sat not on a standard piano bench, but on a chair hand-made by his father, with featured legs that could adjust the height and angle of the chair. Gould preferred extremely hot temperatures in the studio, and would soak his hands in scalding hot water before performing. In addition, he often wore heavy coats and gloves even in the summer. Some have speculated that this behavior was caused by a nerve disorder (possibly fibromyalgia) that affected his ability to discern between hot and cold temperatures.
As for his playing style, Gould was infamous for swaying, singing, humming, and making conducting motions while playing. His singing proved to be a constant issue for recording engineers, who tried to remove the sound of his voice from his piano recordings, only sometimes successfully. Gould’s interpretive decisions were often unconventional, and he was known to make them on the fly during concerts. This led to a fair share of controversy after Leonard Bernstein gave a disclaimer to the audience before one of his concerts, disassociating himself from Gould’s upcoming performance. This incident contributed to Gould’s decision to stop playing live.
The Goldberg Variations (1955)
“The Goldberg Variations” by J. S. Bach consists of an aria, 30 variations on that theme, and a repetition of the aria to close. The piece was originally commissioned as music to help an insomniac German nobleman, Count Keiserlingk, to fall asleep at night. Its title comes from Johann Goldberg, the count’s keyboardist, who may have been the first to perform it.
Before Gould chose to record the piece as his debut album for Columbia Records, it dwelled in obscurity, only being performed or recorded very rarely (due partially to the cumbersome and difficult fingering when played on a piano). In fact, it was somewhat of a gamble on Columbia’s part because of the obscurity of both the piece and Gould. It was recorded in 1955, when Gould was 22 years old. Because of the constraints of the vinyl format, Gould pushed the tempo of the piece to extreme lengths and left out some repeating sections, allowing the album to clock in at a runtime of ~38 minutes.
The album instantly became a bestseller, and launched both Gould and the Goldberg Variations into the spotlight. The recording kickstarted Gould’s recording career, and the Variations entered the standard repertoire for pianists. It was the best-selling classical album of 1956, and never went out of print.
The 1981 Re-recording
25 years after the release of his debut album, Gould decided to re-record the Goldberg Variations for a variety of reasons. In the intervening years, stereo and Dolby surround sound had been invented — the 1955 version was recorded in mono. Recording technology as a field had advanced by leaps and bounds, and digital recording/editing was starting to be used for mainstream recordings. In addition, Gould was unhappy with his original interpretation, particularly with the tempo. He unfavorably compared his original interpretation of variation 25 to a nocturne by Chopin or Bizet. His goal in re-recording the Goldberg Variations was to make the piece cohesive, whereas the original recording showed no obvious link between variations. It may as well have been a set of 32 individual pieces.
Gould’s 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations was among the first classical records released his label that had been digitally recorded and edited. At the time, digital editing was relatively primitive. Sony only possessed two digital editing machines: one stayed in Tokyo, and the other made the rounds between the US and the UK. The sessions for the 1981 recording were also filmed and released in video form, although some differences exist between the video and the sound recording. Because of video’s inherently inferior sound quality, Gould was more lenient on which takes made it there. However, he continued to exhibit his perfectionist tendencies for the CD, splicing together bits (as small as one note) from individual takes until he was satisfied.
The most notable differences between the 1955 and the 1981 recordings are the interpretation and the sonic quality. The later recording is noticeably slower in tempo, coming to ~52 minutes total. The aria, for example, is almost twice as long as its 1955 counterpart. While it may seem maddeningly slow, this was intentional: in an effort to make the piece cohesive, Gould played the theme and variations at tempos that were proportional to each other. Whereas the first recording was in mono and and has a very audible tape hiss in the background of even the remastered version, the second was recorded in stereo and in a notably higher quality, even in the early days of digital recording. This proved to be somewhat of a double-edged sword in a different sense, however: Gould’s singing was much more noticeable and was not relegated so much to the background.
Reception & Legacy
When the 1981 version of the Goldberg Variations was released, its initial critical reception was less than unanimous. When it was criticized, it was always compared unfavorably to its predecessor because of the interpretive differences and the presence of Gould’s singing. Some of this criticism may have also stemmed from its being edited digitally. On its initial release, the frequencies were described as “harsher”, possibly lending to the relatively primitive state of digital recording and editing. However, both the 1955 and the 1981 recordings have since been remastered, and the second recording has been re-appraised favorably.
The Goldberg Variations marked both the beginning and the end of Gould’s career — the 1981 recording was the last one he made before his death after suffering a stroke the following year. As they bookended the discography of a prolific classical recording artist, we can also look at them as a testament to the state of recording technology, and how it advanced considerably in a 25-year period. Glenn Gould is a notable figure in the world of modern classical music because of his enthusiasm for recording, as well as his ability to use the recording studio to its full potential for the genre.
Friedrich, Otto. Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations. New York: Random House, 1989. Print.
Ostwald, Peter F. Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Print.