Hearing Glenn Gould's variation Alterations: CDs of performances before and after his epochal 1955 recording of the 'Goldberg Variations' show how it affected his playing.

October 22, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Bach, "Goldberg Variations," performed by pianist Glenn Gould (CBC Records PSCD 2007); Bach, "Goldberg Variations," performed by Gould (Sony Classical SMK 52 685)

Gould was a great mythmaker, and his testamentary in this regard has to do with two recordings of the "Goldbergs": His 1955 debut recording, with its optimism and athleticism, is the pianist's aubade to the dawn; his 1981 recording, which was released shortly before the pianist's death in 1982, are his evening vespers -- his devotional farewell to a musical work with which he was identified almost as much as the composer himself.

These new recordings -- live, unedited transcripts of actual performances in 1954 and 1959 -- don't alter that myth, but they tell us interesting things about how Gould's conception of the piece was changed by the famous 1955 recording and suggest reasons why Gould retired the "Goldbergs" in public performance in 1961 -- three years before he quit concertizing.

It must be immediately acknowledged, however, that the CBC disc (a broadcast tape of a 1954 performance in Toronto) and the Sony (a broadcast tape from Salzburg in 1959) closely resemble the famous 1955 recording. All feature breathtaking tempos, astonishing clarity and the pianist's famous non-legato touch.

Nevertheless, that the 1954 Toronto performance is somewhat more distant in interpretive details from -- and the 1959 so much closer to -- the 1955 recording, suggests how that recording (and the technology that made it possible) changed Gould's playing forever.

About playing the piano, Gould's teacher, Alberto Guerrero, told his pupil that "The hand is an extension of the mind." His playing from 1955 onward suggests that Gould altered that remark to "Technology -- not a pianist's hands -- should be the extension of the mind."

What, then, are some of the differences that separate Gould in actual performances from Gould in his first commercial studio recording?

The 1954 statement of the "Goldberg" aria has many of the features of traditional, Romantic playing -- a lingering, cantabile line, a good deal of rubato and, surprisingly, legato phrasing. In the debut recording, made less than 12 months later, Gould's expression is unhesitatingly brisk and more crisply ornamented.

Some of the biggest changes come in the faster variations. Variations 5 and 20 are astonishingly fast in 1954, but even faster a year later. The increase in velocity comes not because Gould could get away with it in the studio -- tape-splicing corrects missed notes -- but because technology permitted him to craft an interpretation that would have been impossible in actual performance. Additional evidence comes in the canon in Variation 12. In 1955, it is an exhilarating stamp dance in which it is impossible not to listen -- or move -- to the bass; a year earlier, Gould's phrasing is more traditional -- gentler and more reflective.

Technology made the 1955 version possible not only because editing creates the possibility for faster-than-actually-possible tempos, but also because microphone positioning and mixing permit greater emphasis on the bass line. Technology allowed ++ Gould to extend the contrapuntal clarity, the vein-injected-adrenalin tempos and the non-legato touch that were already part of his approach to his instrument.

Another consequence of technology, however, was that Gould gradually expunged from his repertory of expressive devices the exquisitely shaded, breathing, singing line that was a prominent feature of his playing in 1954. That is certainly suggested by the 1959 Salzburg performance, in which Gould tries to replicate many features of the 1955 recording. But here the hands are not an adequate extension of the mind. In Variations 5 and 20, for example, he tries to play as fast as the 1955 recording, but the effect -- superb though Gould's execution is -- is somewhat impaired by fingering that is slightly, if understandably, labored and unsure. Gould could not compete with his own recording.

Even before Gould's "retirement" in 1964, his famous 1955 recording had penetrated the Western musical consciousness as perhaps no other instrumental recording had: When human )) beings decided to send artifacts of their culture into outer space, it was Gould's recording of the "Goldbergs" that was placed in the space capsule, not a performance of Beethoven's Ninth or Handel's "Messiah."

For Gould there could be no turning back after 1955. He had created something that created, in turn, a tremendous need for Glenn Gould.

But it was not for Gould, the concert pianist, but for Gould, the disembodied genius whose imagination was unfettered by hands made of flesh. As beautifully as Gould could play the piano in traditional ways, it was only in the studio that he could be true to his imagination.

Hear the music

To hear excerpts from Glenn Gould's performances of Bach's "Goldberg Variations," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the code 6235 after youn hear the greeting.

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