This is the first time that we feature baroque music in this series, so with our excitement, we wanted to hit the right chord (no pun intended):
There are some classical performers that are identified with older composers’ pieces so throughly that it is almost like it was their own composition all along. One of the finest examples of this is Glenn Gould and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It even lead to some critics coining the term “Gouldberg” Variations.
The variations have a special place on the Canadian pianist’s career, being the first album that he recorded. The recordings “were very strange to [him]” at the time, as he was only a “public, concert-giving artist”. The idea of considering his recordings as a special and particular act of its own and not a reproduction of any other act lead to his recordings being regarded as very clean and each note very distinct even at the fastest tempos.
Gould “changed a lot as he recorded because he wanted to try different tempos, different accents, different phrasings, because that’s why he loved recording so much,” his producer Howard H. Scott said. Omitting some structural repeats and overall playing at a faster tempo, Gould dropped the total length of the variations to just over 38 minutes (for comparison, his “reconsidered” 1981 version is 51 minutes). He was restless during the recording process, almost like he was searching for the right amount of pressure applied to every key he pressed. “I think that was it”, he would say in the fifth take of the opening aria, but then would go on the record 12 more takes.
In an interview near the end of his life, Gould said that his 1955 recording was “just too fast for comfort.” The 1981 version of the variations, with its mellower approach, is usually the preferred version today. It is even psychiatrist/serial killer Hannibal Lecter’s favorite version, if that means something. Although Gould himself couldn’t live long enough to see the impact his new recording had on the world (he died of a stroke just days after its release), the world saw and cherished this genius with the respect that he rightfully deserved.