The Goldberg Variations Variations

Glenn Gould’s 1956 album of the Goldberg Variations– I’ve lived with that record for as long as I can remember. I also have Gould’s 1981 version, the thoughtful rather than impetuous one, but the 1956 record comes first. First chronologically, but (somehow) axiologically. When I hear other people play the score– accomplished artists with something to say– it’s as if every note comes marked with a little aside: “Glenn hit this one a little harder,” “Glenn sustained this one for a tenth of a second longer,” “Different from Glenn’s ornamentation,” “Glenn chose to bring out the tenor voice in this bar.” Not that I am a GG unconditionalist, but that’s the reference recording in my ear and brain, so help me Gould.

Now Sony has issued a 7-CD compilation of the session tapes that went into the making of the album, and it’s like looking into Flaubert’s manuscripts. Gould (23 at the time) put in long days at the studio, doing one take after another, trying out this way, that way, giving up after ten bars of something that he could see wasn’t going to be good enough, reminding himself of the bass figures, humming to himself (of course), going fast, then slow, with more or less attack, laying down competing tracks for later selection. You hear the variants that lay behind what was to become the canon. It’s like peering into the Language Model of someone’s brain, or a Borgesian library of permutations. And it’s like being in the house while someone practices Bach all day, which brings up some of the pleasantest memories I have.

One thought on “The Goldberg Variations Variations

  1. We are at the end of the CD era, or so I am told; the objet, which runs at just under $100, has something for everyone, including an archaic LP. I will make do with my 1956 and 1981 albums, together with a rare 1955 performance put out by a label for “completists.” I don’t measure against Gould; I measure against Angela Hewitt, who is not quite so percussive or “in your face.” But Goldberg is Goldberg; it performs the needed task of letting us believe that the world is sane, and that there is a mathematical logic that undergirds all. Gould, Hewitt, Tureck, Nikolayeva, Dinnerstein, Leonhardt, Schiff; we need all of them, even post mortem.

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