There and Bach Again

The revealing new release that pairs Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations.

With a couple of trivial exceptions, plus one that’s absolutely gigantic, pianist Glenn Gould never recorded the same piece twice. Unlike, say, Rudolf Serkin, who as his ideas evolved made it a practice to revisit certain key masterpieces, Gould preferred to document one interpretation and never look back.

This comports with his decision, taken in 1964, not to perform in public any more. Unlike every other virtuoso of the past 300 years, Gould didn’t have to go from city to city with the same bundle of dependable war horses in his satchel, playing them over and over. Instead, he would occasionally venture out of his hermitic Toronto apartment very late at night, drive to a studio a few miles away, and there, working in virtual solitude, record and edit a piece until he was satisfied. And that would be that.

The one significant exception to this rule is Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which he recorded twice. The first recording, from 1955, was his major-label debut and instantly made him an international star. The second, from 1981, was, eerily enough, his swan song, the last recording he ever made. Critical opinion of the first release is close to unanimous: It’s considered a milestone in Bach performance and one of the greatest keyboard recordings ever made. The second enjoys a somewhat rockier reputation, although it has its passionate champions.

When I first heard this second performance, at the time of its release, I disliked it. Gould’s tempos seemed perversely slow, his policy with regard to repeats capricious, and the disc’s sound quality harsh, even ugly. But that was 20 years ago. During the ensuing years, I’ve occasionally wondered whether it might be time for a re-evaluation.

And now Sony Classics have made the notion irresistible. They have re-released both performances in a single box, along with a third disc containing an “interview” the pianist “gave” to Washington Post critic Tim Page (the whole thing in reality scripted by Gould alone and rather unconvincingly performed by the two men), plus some interesting outtakes from the 1955 recording sessions. The box is called A State of Wonder, and its appearance qualifies as a genuine event.

The first thing one notices about it is its technical excellence. The sound of Gould I has been spruced up, and Gould II is a revelation. The sonic crudity that bothered me 20 years ago resulted from the Sony engineers’ inexperience with digital technology; for this re-release, they have located analogue masters that were made simultaneously with the digital and painstakingly edited them to match the version supervised by Gould. The results are glorious.

And the performances? Contrasting the two makes for a fascinating exercise. They’re very different, but in neither could the pianist be anyone but Gould. All his distinguishing qualities are evident in both: clarity, rhythmic verve, understated ardor, precision. And while I retain some of my misgivings about the second release, it’s a far more compelling interpretation than I recognized at the time.

Not that things get off to an auspicious start. Here is the beginning of the Aria in Gould I, taken, convincingly, at a stately saraband pace. Gould II, on the other hand, is so maddeningly slow it almost sounds like a stunt. Few musicians other than Gould would be able to sustain the line at this tempo, but it’s unclear why anyone would want to. And here’s another bit of the Aria worth noting, although it’s an ornamental detail so microscopic some might consider it trivial. The exquisite way Gould I rolls the E minor chord downward in the 11th bar makes the moment a casual, ephemeral epiphany. Now listen to the same moment in Gould II: It’s fussy and precious by comparison.

By the first variation, things have improved considerably. Gould I sets out at a spanking pace, with wonderful brio. Gould II is slower, somehow simultaneously more aggressive and less swaggering, but it still has impressive energy and boasts—as does the entire set—a left hand of stunning clarity and definition. It lacks much of the charm of the older performance but offers compensations.

And in the third variation—the first in the series of canons appearing every third variation—Gould I and II are both wonderful. The older performance has speed and lightness going for it, the second an autumnal grace and the marvelous clarity Gould seems to privilege above all other qualities in this traversal.

The next canon—Variation 6—crystallizes some important differences between the two sets generally. In Gould I, the imitative sequences in the two top voices are played with winsome, wistful sweetness, a romantic yearning held in check by baroque tact. Gould II is dryer, more objective, easier to admire than love.

The minor-key variations are another useful basis of comparison. Consider the 25th variation, a piece of such complex chromatic side-slipping that the harmonic language seems poised on the verge of incoherence without ever falling over. Gould I plays it like something from the late romantic period. (Gould himself later disparagingly adduced Chopin, although to me it’s more evocative of Wagner.) Gould II eschews any overt interpretative stance at all, simply plays it cleanly, letting the music speak for itself. I suspect opinions on these two choices will be contentious, but I find them equally valid and equally satisfying.

Peter F. Ostwald’s book about Gould tells us that by the end of his life the pianist was a physical wreck, with many muscular and skeletal problems impeding his ability to perform. I don’t question it, but neither do I hear any evidence of it in his second recording of the Goldbergs. I do hear something else, though. I hear a brilliant musician who has become so reclusive, so sealed off from and frightened by human connection that he makes interpretive choices that stubbornly eschew sensuous appeal. An ascetic who would rather risk repelling listeners than risk inviting them in. A thinker who writes both sides of an interview because he can’t bear to subject himself to questioning, even when it’s sympathetic questioning from a knowledgeable admirer. The personal tragedy of Glenn Gould’s last years is embedded in this performance, encoded in every bar.

Nevertheless, the set is inarguable evidence of Gould’s greatness, as much so as its predecessor, and deserves a place on the shelf of every music-lover. The earlier performance certainly strikes me as more human and more humanly lovable, and of the two, it’s the performance to which I shall more frequently return. But Sony has performed a service by putting both sets in one elegantly produced box and letting us judge for ourselves.