The Goldberg Variations Series: Glenn Gould: Bach, J.S. Goldberg Variations (1955)

This article is the second article of a four part series on the Goldberg Variations in which house writer Phoebus Kyriakoudis discusses different interpretations of the work

In the words of Michael Stegemann: “It was with the Goldberg Variations that it practically all began and with the Goldberg Variations that it practically all ended.”[1] Gould’s monumental 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, revisited one year before his death in 1981 still remains to this day a cornerstone of the piano recording library, having been one of the most successful classical music albums ever and effectively launching Gould’s international career. The word that first comes to mind when people think of Gould might be eccentric, idiosyncratic, for some even deranged. Still, you can’t help but notice how most of what he’s proposing for the Goldbergs actually works in its own context. I will be discussing solely his first recording of the variations this time, as I feel like they deserve special treatment for starting the Gould myth. Before we delve into the recording, however, a bit of background information about how it was recorded.

Gould in the Studio

It comes as no surprise that people have at times described Gould as “the audacious genius who slightly unsettled everyone around him.”[2] Recorded at the Columbia 30th street studio in Manhattan, New York over four days between June 10-16, this album embodies all that came to engender Gould’s legend as a musician. His eccentricities of course started before he would sit down on the piano to record; people describe him entering the building in winter clothes- in mid-June. His antidepressant cocktails notwithstanding, there was also the soaking of the hands in warm water for 20 minutes prior to recording, the use only of his own creaky chair to sit on the piano, the eccentric vocalizing now immortalized in his recordings, and so on. Angela Hewitt makes a compelling point about how we end up discussing the Gould myth more than the playing[3]; we can’t deny its influence, however, on his success as an international musician.

One particular thing about his preparation routine for this album was “finger tapping” every variation before recording it. This technique, conceived by his teacher, Alberto Guerrero, after attending a Chinese circus show[4], is said to have been the determining factor for his flawless control of articulation and crystal-clear staccato sound. Listening to the 23rd variation, for instance, will give a good enough example of what I’m talking about. The technique involved him pressing down on the most outward of the three finger joints of one hand with the other, so that the finger depresses the key and retracts immediately using the minimum muscle energy required; this process, however, meant that the recording for a 39-minute album took 32 hours to complete. Still, no one can speak ill of the stunning result of Gould’s technical control in this album, where even the fastest tempos suddenly feel effortless and light.

The Recording

The real question is where to even begin with this recording; the impeccably varied and expressive opening Aria, the introspective yet joyful canons, the magnificent overture that is the 16th variation, or perhaps the ever-so-mysterious “black pearl” denounced by him in an interview years after the recording yet still owning up to his name? There truly appears a veritable kaleidoscope of affects and textures that Gould chooses to focus on, and this alone poses a compelling case for Bach’s work and Gould’s playing.

As mentioned previously, a staple of his sound is the characteristically detached playing he knew so well to control, exemplified in such variations as the 23rd, the 8th and the 11th. Immediately noticeable becomes any slurred notes he chooses to thus emphasize, as they sometimes appear as if emerging from this sea of light sounds dancing about. This is, for me, why Gould’s playing works with Bach; the contrapuntal structure of the piece becomes readily noticeable with economy of action, harking back to the harpsichord’s methodology for playing with texture but now in a recontextualized soundscape: that of the modern piano. Indeed, his sound possesses much of the dryness commonly associated with the harpsichord, here even more accentuated by the intimacy of the recording quality.

Particularly notorious are his dramatic tempo choices, as even he himself later in his life publicly denounced. Take, for instance, variation no. 20. One feels that Gould’s fingers might snap right off the hand after those ornamented scales. A way to justify this is that Gould was never considered a faithful interpreter; he never had such an interest when performing or recording, hence his eccentricity bleeding to every aspect of his performance. Gould seems like the sort of person who will have something to say about virtually anything in a piece and argue his point well enough to make anything sound credible. Yet his musical instincts have only rarely been proven mistaken. To my mind jumps the audio clip of Leonard Bernstein prologuing a concert of the D minor Brahms piano concerto with Gould as the soloist, saying famously:

“I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould’s conception, and this raises the question: what am I doing conducting it? I’m conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith, and his conception is interesting enough that I feel you should hear it too.”[5]

As a person willing to trust Bernstein’s judgement in these matters, I believe Gould evidently knew what he was doing, as well as how to show it to the audience.

A final word must be then said about the famous 25th variation, the “black pearl” of the set that Gould so famously condemned in one of his interviews. According to him, the 25th variation sounded “like a Chopin nocturne”- a clear disdain for his musical upbringing that relied heavily on the outwardly emotional style of playing of older musicians. His 1981 account of the variation certainly shows much more restraint in that respect, a more measured approach underpinning the whole recording; and yet I can’t take my ears away from the 1955 version. Something about the desperately crawling chromatic lines of the first movement, the almost dismal leaps in the melody and the heart wrenching crescendo in the end make this interpretation impossible to forget. Though I see Gould’s point, it’s definitely a moment in the history of Bach recordings history to cherish due to its sheer boldness and conviction.

I could go on for ages about this album, but silence is Golden…berg. (I couldn’t resist). Of course, it’s not that his playing hasn’t been met with conflicting thoughts; Pierre-Laurent Aimard expresses irritation at the fact that Gould never slows down or finishes a phrase in a round manner regarding phrasing. “What you are aiming for, as a listener, is to forget about the performer, to listen just to the music, but in Gould's playing, there is too much that disturbs to forget about him”[6], he describes. Perhaps he didn’t consider what the reason is for listening to Gould’s recordings then; who would listen to this album for anything but Gould’s unashamedly authentic sound? In any case, I can’t think of one person who shouldn’t listen to this amazing essay on the Goldenberg variations, ranging from historical to philosophical reasons. Gould’s character and music has guided me from an early age, showing me that being nothing but yourself is what this profession truly needs. I cannot recommend this recording enough.

Phoebus Kyriakoudis, January 2021

[1] Stegemann, M., 2015. Glenn Gould. [online] The Official Glenn Gould Site. [2] Walts, S., 2017. Glenn Gould: Bach: The Goldberg Variations. [online] [3] Service, T., 2012. Glenn Gould: A Wilfully Idiotic Genius?. [online] the Guardian. [4] Beauchamp, R., 2005. Glenn Gould And Finger Tapping. [online] [5] Bernstein, L., 1962. Bernstein's Speech & Brahms No.1 D-Minor Piano Concerto Op. 15 - Maestoso. [tape] [6] Service, T., 2012. Glenn Gould: A Wilfully Idiotic Genius?. [online] the Guardian.

Phoebus has also written:

Performance and Technology in a Socially Distanced World

Manos Xatzidakis / For a Little White Seashell (1947)

Dmitri Schostakovich / Symphony No.5 (1937)

Review of 2018 Album (F)lute Songs by Mary Jane Leach

Rosemary Brown: Transcriber for the Dead

Wanda Landowska - Scarlatti Keyboard Sonatas (Warner Classics, 1993 Remastered)

The Goldberg Variations Series: Landowska and Egarr - Voices from the Past


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