Friday Favorites 1/4/2013
In 1955, a relatively unknown twenty-two year old classical pianist recorded a little known work by Bach on Columbia Records over the objections of company executives. The recording, Bach: The Goldberg Variations achieved remarkable sales for a classical album, established The Variations as part of the standard piano repertoire, and launched the career of the pianist, Glenn Gould. I was eleven years old at the time, probably listening to The Ballad of Davy Crockett, and although my Mom had a small collection of classical recordings, she preferred more bombastic symphonic works. I first heard Gould’s recording in the seventies at the home of a friend. The music and the playing were remarkable but occasionally accompanied by what sounded like humming or groaning. You’ll get used to it, my friend told me. Glenn Gould is known for humming along as he plays but his artistry is worth putting up with it. It was. I purchased the disc the next day and it became one of my favorites.
According to Wikipedia, Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a set of 30 contrapuntal variations beginning and ending with an aria that was considered esoteric and technically demanding, requiring awkward hand crossing in various places when played on a piano. As a consequence, it had only been recorded a few times on small or unknown labels. Gould was an eccentric musical genius known for peculiar habits while playing (including humming), amazing technical skill and a willingness to interpret the work of composers that thrilled some critics and infuriated others. He often practiced without the piano, tapping out the notes slowly before playing it, a technique he claimed resulted in his remarkable precision at high speeds. This is the Aria from his 1955 recording.
Over the years, Gould would become quite critical of his 1955 recording, particularly the fast tempi and what he called the affectation of his playing. He eventually disavowed the recording, saying, I can no longer recognize the person who did that. To me today that piece has intensity without any sort of false glamour. Not a pianistic or instrumental intensity, a spiritual intensity. Shortly before his death in 1982, Gould recorded a slower and more introspective version of Bach: The Goldberg Variations. Fortunately, these recording sessions were also recorded on video. Here is Gould playing the same Aria live in 1981.
In 2002, Sony released a three-CD set titled A State of Wonder which included both the 1955 and 1981 versions, along with studio outtakes, an interviews with music critic Tim Page regarding the significance of the Gould’s work. It is a beautiful recording that serves equally well as background for writing or for conscious listening. You can find a video of the entire 1981 Goldberg Variations recording session here. Enjoy.