Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1759)
Keyboard Concerto No.1 in D minor BWV 1052* [24:16]
Partita No.5 in G major BWV 829 [10:03]
Partita No.6 in E minor BWV 830 [23:06]
From: The Well Tempered Clavier Book II:-
Fugue in F sharp minor BWV 883 [3:21]
Fugue in E major BWV 878 [4:23]
Glenn Gould (piano)
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein*
rec. Columbia 30th Street Studios, New York City, 11, 30 April 1957* and 29-31 July and 1 August 1957.
NAXOS 8.112049 [65:09]

Recorded in glorious mono, there has to be a certain amount of interest in Glenn Gould the Bach performer when considering recordings like this, especially when it comes to something like the Concerto No.1 in D minor BWV 1052 with its rather scratchy string sound. Ideally, we’d have a whole sequence of reissues for these recordings all lined up, and an expert reviewer able to reveal all when it comes to the discs which present the best balance and least offence to our modern digital-hungry ears. I used to listen to this and other Gould concerto recordings on CBS cassettes, and the re-mastering and restoration on this Naxos disc seems to give a brighter, more etched sound. There are advantages and trade-offs with even subtle treatments of the sound in these recordings, and a comparison with the fugue recordings on this disc when compared to their appearance on the Sony 1955 Goldberg Variations disc SMK 5 594 shows the 1992 engineers favouring a rounder tone and less tape hiss. Mark Obert-Thorn’s Naxos rendition is also marginally higher in pitch, though we’re talking about fractions here. Normally there is a certain amount of discussion about the source material for these re-masterings, but there is no comment on the actual tapes used or what actions were taken.

Comparing different versions does make one realise how much difference certain types of approach make. Assuming the Sony re-issues use a similar balance for the other recordings, the advantages to this new version become apparent quite quickly. The ear has to forgive a greater hardness in the sound in the search for greater detail and a more direct communication of nuance and expression. It’s only when returning to the duller mix that you realise what is missing and find your ears longing for the more lively Naxos colouration.

As one might expect, Bach’s Concerto No.1 in D minor BWV 1052 does sound rather measured and dated in this 1957 recording, although the final Allegro is lively enough. The real joy is in Gould’s playing, which holds and drives the rhythms so effectively. Bernstein proves to be a sympathetic accompanist, and the so-called Columbia Symphony Orchestra, reckoned to be members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra ducking contractual restrictions by using an assumed name, are decent enough. There is no denying that the combination creates its own atmosphere, and once you have forgiven the scrawny sound it is easy to become deeply involved in a very sincere performance of this great music, which in his short performing career was a staple of Gould’s repertoire.

After his renowned 1955 Goldberg Variations recording, Glenn Gould began recording Bach’s Partitas in February 1956 as a follow-up. Dissatisfied with these takes, Gould returned to the Columbia studios three months after the concerto recording to create the versions which were eventually released. These are remarkable performances which, controversial in their own time and respected rather than loved in some quarters these days, have as did so many of Gould’s recordings become an influential reference for pianists ever since. Indeed, even today they are seen as a benchmark reference for exciting Bach interpretation. Sometimes startling in their clarity, Gould’s Partitas showed how this music could be spectacular and stimulating, making full use of his remarkable digital dexterity in fast movements, phrasing sensitively in the gentle Sarabandes and dancing with a rhythmic joie de vivre elsewhere. One pleasant aspect of these solo recordings is that Gould’s incidental but constant singing is kept well in the background, and is not very distracting even when it does come through.

Being something of a Glenn Gould fan I would have to say that these and the rest of his Partita recordings are a must for any self-respecting piano collection. Those of you who have the impression that his is a rather dry and brittle approach to Bach should have a listen to his playing in the Toccata opening of the Partitia No.6. This is full of fantasy, and to my mind gives an almost operatic sense of narrative over its almost 10 minutes of duration. Follow this with the eloquent and restrained spread of chords and conversational counterpoint in the subsequent Allemande and I defy your heart not to melt – there, another convert. There is no doubt that the Partitas are the core of the programme on this disc, but don’t dismiss the concerto, and have a listen to the wide vista which Gould makes from the Fugue in E major in an entirely different approach to the version you will hear in his later complete Well Tempered Clavier. Glenn Gould defies fashion and will never lose his appeal with discs like these in the bargain section of your local shop. With these fresh sounding re-masterings this has to be the version to have.

Dominy Clements