Glenn Gould, Bach: Goldberg Variations (1955 Version) – Expanded Edition

Gavin Borchert

By Gavin Borchert

on 12.17.11 in Reviews

Bach: Goldberg Variations (1955 Version) - Expanded Edition

Glenn Gould

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations draw their nickname (Bach published them as part of a series with the generic title “Keyboard Practice”) from Johann Goldberg, an acquaintance of Bach who, legend has it, played them to amuse his insomniac employer as he sat awake. Bach took the chord changes of a lovely slow Aria, heard at the beginning and end of the work, and spun out a suite of 30 variations, ranging from the powerfully expressive (nos. 15 and 25) to the giddily showy (nos. 23 and 29). The Goldbergs are a catalog of Bach’s effortless, ingenious contrapuntal mastery, his keyboard flair, his command of shifting moods and emotions. This intensely beautiful but rather cerebral work not exactly a popular hit of the piano repertory was a surprising choice for the 1955 recording debut of Glenn Gould, just 22. It soon became one of the most lauded, and best-selling, piano recordings ever. The absolute clarity and purity of Gould’s playing, the rhythmic liveliness, the incisiveness and assurance, brought this work of Bach’s to a larger audience and earned the pianist near-household word status. In 1981, Gould decided to record the Goldbergs again. Revisiting the work, his approach had grown even more “introspective” (his word) with age, more thoughtful and introverted; waxing wry about the 1955 version’s popularity, he made some pointed remarks about the show-offy exuberance of his youthful performance. The new Goldbergs proved to be Gould’s final recording he died, at 50, just days after its 1982 release, and Bach’s concluding aria, played at a transcendentally slow but impeccably sustained tempo, became a poignant farewell.