Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Aria with Diverse Variations"

Last March, the NPR blog Deceptive Cadence devoted an entire week to them, with a baker's dozen of features. Glenn Gould recorded them twice, famously bookending his career with contrasting interpretations that have recently been reissued in one set. I'm speaking of course of Bach's Goldberg Variations (which we also have on DVD versions, with Rosalyn Tureck and Evgeni Koroliov). Here's pianist Steven Osborne on GG:
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.

FYI, here's how critic Tom Huizenga describes the work:
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.
A very young Gould with his pooch. I've heard of piano four hands, but two hands and paw? That's cheating!


  1. I knew someday you would come to this.
    Being fond of classical piano, I had heard the Goldbergs before. Gould's 1955 performance was a thorough delight, for the spontaneity mentioned in Mr. Osbourne's remarks.
    The sheer joy Gould expresses when he plays Bach is palpable. He plays like a bird sings its song.
    But one day, over the radio, came the 1981 aria played by Gould, and within 2 minutes I was awash in tears. The same thing happens every time I hear it.
    To me, it is a song of deep regret, of something done-- or left undone-- that is now irrevocable because it is too late. The idea is specific, as if I heard it in words.
    It revealed to me how music can bypass the intellect and go straight to the heart. Did Glenn Gould, who knew Bach's music like his own soul, use it to express his own grief?
    If so, then message received.

    1. This was one of your most beautifully expressed and moving comments ever ... and that's saying something! Thank you for this ... I deeply appreciate your sensitivity and thoughtfulness and willingness to add so much research and color and insight to almost any topic I introduce.

  2. I’m one of the few who prefer the second recording of the Goldberg Variations. It’s more authentically baroque, and it has great clarity and control. And although Gould was a Bach interpreter above all, it’s worth noting that he was excellent at performing 20th century composers such as Schoenberg, Strauss, and Hindemith. In fact, Gould “owns” these composers’ piano works even more than he does the Goldberg Variations. He also recorded some refreshingly strange (and often aggressive) renditions of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. To hear him play anything is to hear it anew. Quite simply, the most remarkable classical pianist of the 20th century.

    1. I agree with you in your preference for the 1981 recording. I particularly like the word "aggressive" to describe GG's handling of Beethoven and Mozart. I think Chopin was temperamentally at odds with him, though.
      He is no less than the most remarkable pianist, period.

  3. Gould was a character all right--that peculiar position he took at the keyboard, his avoidance of live performances and his disdain for the majority of the public would have crashed any lesser pianist's career. But there was that sound, the clarity of each voice in a four-part fugue, that precision of tone and touch, and the seeming ease of execution.
    I miss him dearly.