I can't think of the Goldberg Variations without Gould. I find what he does so utterly compelling that I've never really thought to learn the piece myself: I think about the Goldbergs, and just imagine him playing, and there's no point in playing it like him again. Initially, it was his second recording of it, the one he made in 1981, that I heard. The contrapuntal detail he finds in every bar is amazing; no one has equalled the way he plays the aria. But even more extraordinary is the line he creates that connects the whole piece. I'm not sure I have heard anything where every single note is placed so carefully, is so carefully thought about. For some people, it's too controlled, but I don't find that. And yet I prefer his 1955 recording of the piece. I can't think of a single artist who made such a profound change in their approach to a piece throughout their whole career. In the later record, he sometimes goes at half the speed of the earlier one. And what makes the earlier record so wonderful is its spontaneity – it's really happening in the moment, and it just makes me smile. It's a combination of the incredible technical control he has, but it's also that he is expressing something so incredibly powerful. It's a sucker punch.
There are 30 variations, grouped in units of three, with each unit containing a relatively easy variation, a virtuosic one and a variation constructed as a canon of overlapping melodies, increasing in intervals each time from canon at unison, at 2nd, 3rd and so on up to a canon at the ninth. Then what would be the final canon isn't one at all. Bach throws a curveball, deviating from his design with a mashup of pop songs including a tune called "Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben" (Cabbage and turnips have driven me away). The German expression "Kraut und Rüben" means a confused mess to this day.Whew!
|A very young Gould with his pooch. I've heard of piano four hands, but two hands and paw? That's cheating!|