Johann Sebastian Bach
Recorded April, May 1981
Sony Classical Audio Discography
About BWV 988 on 'bach-cantatas.com'
========= from the cover ==========
"A Kind Of Autumnal Repose"
It is by no means uncommon for a performer to record certain works - the pieces de resistance of his repertoire - more than once. Nor is it surprising if these recordings differ significantly from one another: they are, as it were, a stocktaking of the interpretative attitude at a particular point in time and milestones in an artistic development.
But Glenn Gould's two studio recordings of the Goldberg Variations constitute rather an exceptional case. For one thing, separated from one another by a period of some twenty-six years, they represent the beginning and end of his career as a pianist; his first recording of the work (Sony SMK 52594) in June 1955 was the 22-year-old Canadian's very first "Columbia" disc, which made him famous more or less overnight; the second recording in April and May 1981 was one of his last contributions to CBS, which Gould himself did not live to hear. These two versions of the Goldberg Variations are also exceptional in the history of interpretation on account of their extreme differences, which can be discerned from a purely external point of view from their respective playing times - 38 minutes 27 seconds in 1955 compared with 51 minutes 15 seconds in 1981. In a conversation with Tim Page in the context of the second Goldberg recording, Gould expressed himself at length on the subject of what one might call the "discovery of slowness": "I think that the great majority of the music that moves me very deeply is music that I want to hear played or want to play myself, as the case may be, in a very ruminative, very deliberate tempo. [...] Firm beat, a sense of rhythmic continuity has always been terribly important to me. But as I've grown older I find many performances, certainly the great majority of my own early performances, just too fast for comfort. I guess part of the explanation is that all the music that really interests me, not just some of it, all of it, is contrapuntal music [...] and I think [...] that with really complex contrapuntal textures one does need a certain deliberation, a certain deliberate-ness, and [...] that it's the occasional or even the frequent lack of that deliberation that bothers me most in the first version of the Goldbergs."
After the sensation made by Gould's 1955 recording, the Goldberg Variations for many years were a regular feature of his piano recitals; even in the early years after his departure from the concert platform, extracts from the work cropped up from time to time in Gould's appearances for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation - finally on March 29, 1967 in the discussion with Humphrey Burton entitled "To Every Man His Own Bach". Gould's decision to embark on a new recording emerged from his preliminary discussions with Bruno Monsaingeon in connection with the film trilogy "Glenn Gould Plays Bach". The more obvious this idea may seem, the more surprising is Gould's statement shortly after the end of the recording sessions, in an interview with Joseph Roddy: "I think it's a very oversold work [...] There are in the Goldbergs, I think, some of the very best moments of Bach, which is saying an awful lot, but I think there are also some of his silliest. [...] As a piece, as a concept, I don't really think it quite works."
Quite deliberately Gould avoided making his legendary old recording the basis for the new interpretation. He did not listen to it again until three or four days before the first session in the studio. "I found that it was a rather spooky experience. I listened to it with great pleasure in many respects. I found, for example, that it had a real sense of humour, [...] and I found that I recognized at all points really the fingerprints of the party responsible. I mean from a tactile standpoint, from a purely mechanical standpoint my approach to playing the piano you know really hasn't changed all that much over the years. It's remained quite stable, static some people might prefer to say. [...] But, and it is a very big 'but', I could not recognize or identify with the spirit of the person who made that recording. It really seemed like some other spirit had been involved [...] There's a lot of piano-playing going on there, and I mean that as the most disparaging comment possible."
What, if anything, disturbed Gould even more in his earlier recording was that the overall structure was inconsistent. He now felt that the thirty variations on the theme were not just thirty independent miniatures, each with its own character and expression, which is how he had previously played them, but that they followed one another logically as organically interwoven progressions and elaborations of one and the same material. "I've come to feel over the years that a musical work, however long, ought to have basically one - I was going to say tempo but that's the wrong word - pulse-rate, one constant rhythmic reference point. Now, obviously, there couldn't be anything more deadly dull than to exploit one beat that went on and on and on, indefinitely. [...] But you can take a basic pulse and divide or multiply it - not necessarily on a scale of 2 - 4 - 8 - 16 - 32, but often with far less obvious divisions - and make the result of those divisions or multiplications act as a 'subsidiary' pulse for a particular moment." In each bar, in each variation, but also over the whole length of the work, in Gould's second recording of the Goldberg Variations, it is possible to sense this "basic pulse" which radiates that feeling which Gould, shortly before commencing the recording, defined (in an interview with Ulla Colgrass) as the ideal of his interpretations: "I would like to think that there is - especially in more recent years - a kind of autumnal repose in what I'm doing. [...] I'm not saying that my own recordings achieve that, although I would be very happy if they did. It would be nice if what we do in the recorded state could involve the possibility of some degree of perfection, not purely of a technical order, but also of a spiritual order."
Although between February and September 1982 Gould made a number of other recordings - he played Brahms's Ballades, Op. 10 and Rhapsodies, Op.79 (Sony SM2K 52651) and the Piano Sonata, Op. 5 by Richard Strauss (Sony SM2K 52657) and conducted Wagner's Siegfried Idyll (to be published in the Glenn Could Edition under SMK 52650) - the second studio recording of the Goldberg Variations was, in a manner of speaking, his legacy, "wisdom's final (artistic) lesson" - the beginning and the end intertwined like the esoteric Uroboros emblem of the snake which swallows itself, symbol of infinity and of eternal recurrence.
When Gould left the CBS studio on May 29, 1981 at 207, 30th Street, New York - an old Presbyterian church - "sometime after midnight", a chapter in recording history also came to an end for Samuel Carter; the Goldberg Variations were the last official production to take place there. "Now the studio, once a kind of Mecca for some of the world's greatest musicians, was to be sold, victim of the changed fortunes of an industry that has become as multinational as any other and as competitive. For Glenn Gould and for those of us whose association with 'Columbia' covers a long span of years, the old church is a place where many ghosts walk..."
With his second Goldberg Variations Gould had himself been transformed into one of those ghosts, which - as is well known - are immortal.
-Michael Stegemann (translation: 1993 Gery Bramall)