Tuesday, December 31, 2002


Work: ‘Goldberg Variations’
Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer: Glenn Gould
Label: Glenn Gould Edition SM3K87703
Released: 1 September, 2002
Audio CD: 3 discs

Whether you fell in love with Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations years ago or have yet to discover them, the new Sony 3-disc digipack set, A State of Wonder, is an absolute treat. In short, it’s all here. First, the 1955 recording (38’ 26”) superbly remastered. As Tim Page says in his direct, illuminative introductory notes , “Gould’s Bach swung like mad. It was urgent, vibrant, strutting and downright sexy.” Next, the 1981 analogue re-recording (at 51’ 14” significantly slower, differently expressed and incorporating selected repeats). This compares favourably with the digital version released in 1982, days before Gould’s tragically early death. It is sonically fuller, though the ambience seems to temper the characteristic ‘attack’ of his playing. Then there is a third CD including some 1955 studio outtakes (released for the first time) and an extensive Page interview with Gould himself.

As if this wasn’t enough, the booklet sealed into the front of the attractive fold-out package includes a survey of Gould in the studio, the original liner notes he wrote for the 1955 recording, an excerpt from the score he annotated in 1981, and technical comments on these 16-bit 44.1KHz discs, including the digital-to-analogue issues on the 1981 set.

For less than the cost of many single discs these days, Sony and Legacy have provided us with a real treasure. One note of caution, however. The omission of any direct mention of J. S. Bach on the front cover, and in this review so far, is not without significance. For although these renditions are firmly rooted in the master’s aria and variations of BMV 988, they truly are (simultaneously) Glenn Gould from start to finish. He took what had once been regarded as beautiful but rather dryly academic harpsichord exercises and transformed them into a pianoforte tour-de-force that combined a deeply committed reading of the score with an unashamedly modern, post-Romantic sensibility.

Where does Gould begin and Bach end? Weave your way through all the raging arguments about authenticity in performance if you will - it is still pretty difficult to tell. Any yet it is also very clear. Whereas some of the myriad piano versions of Goldberg undeniably mire Bach in sentiment and floridity, Gould does neither. There is fire and passion here, certainly. But also restraint and attention. For musicologists it isn’t difficult to quarrel over points of interpretation, the faith(less)ness of particular modes of repetition, and so on. But somehow, and without warrant in the technical debates, one gains a sense of Gould fusing his soul with Bach’s through the medium of music. It is the feeling in these performances that is so undeniable.

If the great Johann Sebastian returned today I’m sure he would have some difficulty identifying Gould’s renditions in anything like the terms he put together the originals (inaccessible as those remain for us today). But I suspect he would still love what he heard and recognise his score as having been filtered lovingly through the hands of another, quite different master.

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