That was no mistake, that was the last word Appreciation: Glenn Gould's 1955 "Goldberg Variations" set the pianistic standard, but his '81 version reaches beyond standards.

October 22, 1995|By Jim Kramon | Jim Kramon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I have always traveled light in summers, taking with me to our vacation home the minimum of possessions: an extra pair of eye glasses, whatever books I am reading and, of course, my CD of Glenn Gould's 1955 performance of the "Goldberg Variations."

This latter item, since it cannot go unplayed for more than a day or two, I generally carry to the car like a life-support device. This year, I inadvertently took with me not Gould's celebrated world standard of the "Variations," but his surprise 1981 re-recording, done only a year before his death at age 50.

I discovered my mistake when, one evening before dinner, I played the '81 recording. As it had the few other times I had tried it, the recording struck me like a gratuitous moving of familiar furniture. So firmly emblazoned in my mind were the precise and comprehending phrasings of the '55 that each deviation shrieked of heresy. How dare Gould, of all people, toy with what the entire musical world regarded as artistic perfection?

But for my addiction, I would not have played Gould's "Variations" again last summer. Yet, when I awoke one night and couldn't go back to sleep, I gave the '81 another shot.

This time it was different. In the opening variation, Gould seemed, as before, to be playing torturously slowly. (He played it for 3 minutes and 5 seconds in '81 as compared with 1 minute and 50 seconds in '55.) This time, however, what I had previously taken as an almost mocking hesitation did not sound that way. Instead, in solitude in the enveloping darkness -- something Gould profoundly appreciated -- I heard another message in Gould's opening tempo. This time he was saying: "Listen, I am about to tell you something important."

And in the next 51 minutes he did just that.

For the rest of the summer, in dozens of playings, my affection for the '81 recording grew. When one gets to know it, the '81 adds something all but indescribable to Gould's unparalleled technical mastery in the '55.

According to Gould's biographers, he saw life as an exploratory journey. Gould was taken with what the future might hold and the possibilities technology presented. He particularly liked open-ended possibilities, ill-defined nocturnal telephonic friendships, long periods of isolation, and exploring musical ideas at his parents' wilderness cabin. One must reconcile Gould's re-recording of the "Variations" with his grappling with incompleteness.

It is also necessary to reconcile Gould's '81 re-recording with the fact he was a perfectionist, so much so that he exhausted himself reworking the briefest of passages.

Gould believed recordings are the indelible expression of musical artists. One of his relentless criticisms of the concert stage, which he abandoned in 1964, was its "no take two-ness," by which he meant the inability to repeat passages to perfection. This insistence could never square with his casual return to CBS' 30th Street Recording Studios to re-record the music that had catapulted him to his status as an artistic and intellectual icon almost 27 years before.

Gould's abbreviated explanation for the re-recording -- he ascribed it to new technology and a re-examination of the "arithmetical correspondence between theme and variation" -- is perhaps true, but surely less than the whole story. It's not possible that a man so consumed with unfulfilled possibilities, so insistent on expressing himself flawlessly, could do something so irregular -- except to further a deeply held motivation.

Gould's 1955 recording is a part of classical music folklore. He was an off-the-wall eccentric -- with his myriad pills and tonics, bowls of water for dipping his fingers, inappropriate clothing, crazed expression and stool that his father made for him, which held his arms below the keyboard. Since he didn't come from Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union but from Toronto, of all places, Gould's eccentricities could not be ascribed to cultural incongruities.

His insistence that he perform for his first recording the incredibly intricate exercises Bach wrote for his prize student did not help matters. Many of the people involved feared his performance of the "Variations" would suffer by comparison with the celebrated recording of Wanda Landowska. Anything less than unquestioned technical mastery would surely have bought Gould a quick trip back up north.

As it turned out, the complexity and interpretive possibilities of the "Variations" enabled Gould to make instantly clear that he was not simply another brilliant pianist, but a unique musician of unparalleled scope.

If the circumstances surrounding Gould's '55 recording were confining, those surrounding his '81 re-recording were the opposite.

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