Variations on the Goldberg Variations

It’s been said that Bach’s Goldberg Variations put Glenn Gould on the map. In 1955, this Canadian pianist, 22 years old and all but unknown, chose the piece for his debut recording, and the sheer brilliance of his performance made it an immediate best seller and himself an immediate sensation. But it could be said with almost equal validity that Glenn Gould put the Goldbergs on the map. Not that the piece previously lacked prestige; musicians have always regarded its compositional intricacies with awe. But public performances were relatively rare, and it was generally more admired than loved.

For one thing, the piece’s wizardry is daunting. Consisting of 30 variations on an original theme, the music also explores a wide variety of contrapuntal devices, most rigorously the canon (a form of strict imitation resembling, at its most basic, a round like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”). In the Goldbergs, canons put in regularly scheduled appearances at every third variation—Ralph Kirkpatrick likened its structure to a string of rosary beads—with each canon beginning on a successively higher pitch. To add to the complication, some of these canons are inverted (the imitation is upside down rather than literal). All this, especially when in harness to strict variation form, represents an extraordinary, indeed an almost superhuman, display of technical mastery.

Until Gould, the piece, when played in public at all, was largely performed by Baroque specialists, usually on the harpsichord, and often presented in a “now you must take your medicine, it’s good for you” spirit. Listening seemed a character-building chore rather than a pleasure. Gould’s great achievement was to demonstrate that the piece is also fun. He played with verve and swagger as well as intellectual rectitude, showing that the Goldberg Variations isn’t merely a scholarly investigation of contrapuntal devices, it’s a joyous piece of music. Listen to his insouciant finger work in the second variation. (Click to hear Gould play Variation 2 - track 3.) His recording is rightly considered one of the landmarks of the LP era. In its wake, and thanks in no small degree to its example, the piece decisively entered the repertoire. Amazon currently lists 134 recordings!

No performance can justly be said to replace Gould’s, but two subsequent ones have deservedly taken their place alongside it: András Schiff’s, recorded in 1982, and now Murray Perahia’s. And wonderful as the earlier two are, this most recent one strikes me as, just possibly, the greatest solo piano recording of all time.

Consider how the three pianists handle the penultimate variation, No. 29. The variation consists of approximately a minute of music (ignoring repeats). But that single minute belies the traditional notion of Bach as a composer whose interest in actual performance, in virtuoso display, in the tactilia of instrumental realization, is minimal or nonexistent.

Gould, with his famously ascetic approach, mistrusted flamboyant showmanship and actively scorned music that called for it. He seems inclined to hurry over this variation. (Click to hear Gould play Variation 29 -  track 30.) He takes it quickly all right—his fingers are, of course, equal to any technical challenge—but there’s something uncomfortable and almost perfunctory about his playing, as if he wants to get past it as quickly as possible and move on to the magisterially buoyant final variation, the Quodlibet.

Schiff, a pianist of almost supernal delicacy, plays this variation, as always, with extraordinary elegance and beauty of tone, but does so in a way that turns it into something it is not, or rather, that masks some of what it actually is. (Click to hear Schiff play Variation 29.) He gives us Bach the intellectual, Bach the mystic, but barely a whiff of the earthy peasant or the cocky virtuoso. It’s like Percy Dovetonsils reciting “There Once Was a Man From Nantucket.”

Perahia, uniquely, plays it with meaty, muscular panache, with a strutting bravura that exults in the sheer physicality of music-making. And in so doing, he transforms and illuminates this variation in an entirely fresh way, as he does the set as a whole. (Click to hear Parahia play Variation 29.) He introduces us to the Bach who was widely acclaimed in his own time as the world’s greatest clavier player, a performer who engaged in keyboard competitions with other musicians and who reveled in his own powers. That the Goldberg Variations showcases this aspect of the composer—an aspect usually buried under layers of disincarnating idolatry—is the surprise bonus provided by this wonderful record. It triumphantly reunites Bach’s soul with his body.