This 1955 recording of Bach’s great masterpiece, the Goldberg
Variations, brought Glenn Gould fame and public recognition.
I must lay my cards on the table and say that whilst I appreciate
Gould’s incredible virtuosity and pioneering achievements, especially
in the music of Bach on the piano, I find that other pianists
of more recent times have made much finer recordings of this
To start with, Gould gives us no repeats. As Angela Hewitt points
out, this practice has frequently been a requirement of concert
promoters in order to allow time for another work or works to
be played in the same concert. She says that she played the
Goldberg Variations with all the repeats for the first time
for her Hyperion recording, and that she realized how much greater
the work became both from architectural and musical points of
view. I agree with this wholeheartedly.
(Her recording is available on a single Hyperion CD (CDA30002
or as part of a set (CDS44421/35),
each also available as mp3 or lossless downloads from hyperion.co.uk.
Download of the Month - see October 2010 Download
Roundup for details. I never got round to including the
full track-listing that I promised, but you can find it and
listen to samples here.
Listen to the lovely, imaginative ornamentation in the repeats
of Variation 2 in Murray Perahia’s performance on Sony Classical
(SK89243). In Variation 8, he varies the repeats by giving prominence
to each of the two parts in alternation. In Variation 9, both
Perahia and Hewitt quite rightly vary the repeats by relying
on the piano’s expressive possibilities rather than on ornamentation.
In Variation 20, Gould plays so phenomenally fast that the piece,
without repeats, is too short and seemingly inconsequential.
The speed allows for minimal expression. Perahia also has stunning
finger-work, but we can hear everything we need to, and both
he and Hewitt give wonderfully expressive performances of this
Other short variations also seem perfunctory without the repeats.
In Variation 22, Gould seems aggressive in comparison with Hewitt.
After a light start, she plays the repeats forte. Perahia
and Hewitt observe all the repeats, often using further ornamentation
and frequently beginning the repeats more softly. For example,
in the opening Aria, Perahia plays the repeats with great delicacy.
As in Variation 9, he doesn’t vary the ornamentation but relies
on the piano’s expressive possibilities for contrast.
My other problem with Gould’s performance is his insistence
in the more speedy variations on playing as fast as possible
and sometimes even faster. In almost all the variations, Gould
is quicker than Perahia, who in turn is generally a touch more
speedy than Hewitt. What amazing virtuosity Gould displays in
variation 5. One can admire him, but it is performed at a ridiculously
fast tempo. Perahia’s less crazy speed allows us to be enchanted
by the subtle colouring and balance of his playing, and Hewitt
displays even greater expressiveness here.
Variation 14 is presented by Gould in a relentless and unforgiving
way, without a moment of repose, whereas Hewitt is lightweight
but more expressive. I feel that Variation 24, a 9/8 time pastoral-like
piece, should swing along gently as in Hewitt’s beautifully
expressive and delicately nuanced performance. Perahia is a
little quicker with more forward thrust, but not as fast as
Gould who presents this variation in a very different mood.
However one exception is Variation 25, perhaps the greatest
and most moving variation of all. Here, Gould is eccentrically
slow, and it is just as well that he plays it without repeats.
Hewitt and Perahia give this Adagio more flowing, expressive
and satisfying performances, and the repeats are wonderfully
played too. Surely Bach would have approved. Actually, Gould
himself re-recorded the Goldberg Variations in 1981, and he
included some repeats. He rejected this 1955 recording, saying
that much of it was too fast and showy.
Gould also presents a more aggressive mood than other players
in some variations. Hewitt describes Variation 11 as a gentle
gigue-like toccata. Hers is a gently flowing performance, attractively
played with nice colouring, whereas Gould is louder and more
energetic. Perahia and Hewitt also give more expressive performances
of Variation 15, the sorrowful conclusion to Part 1. Hewitt
is especially delicate here.
Gould’s recording sounds rather dry compared with modern recordings,
but this is also due to the fact that he appears not to use
the pedal. Perhaps he is trying to produce a sound nearer to
that of the harpsichord, rather than use too many of the resources
of the modern piano. Maybe players like Hewitt and Perahia,
who use the full resources of the piano, are not to everyone’s
taste. However they both do this in a thoroughly tasteful way
and I believe that if you play Bach on the piano, don’t try
to make it sound like a harpsichord.
We also have to endure a certain amount of singing and groaning
from Gould, which I find irritating even on a single hearing.
I know that for many musicians, Gould has a god-like status.
They worship the very ground upon which he walked, and I will
be shot to pieces for writing this review. I do appreciate Gould’s
great achievements, especially at the time he was recording,
but nowadays Bach is played better by such as Perahia and Hewitt,
and they are my equal first choices. Their performances are
wonderfully virtuosic but also deeply thoughtful and spiritual.
Both players perfectly inhabit the wide variety of moods and
meaning that Bach presents to us in this great masterpiece.
András Schiff is another fine Bach interpreter, and in the Overture
in the French Manner he always adopts convincing tempi for each
successive dance. In the Overture we have real clarity in the
first section with precise double dotting, followed by a brisk
and exciting middle section with lovely expressive qualities.
In the reprise to the opening music, Schiff delights with tasteful
ornamentation. The dance movements which follow, both in the
Overture and in the French Suite No.5 which is also on this
disc, are played characterfully with a true feeling for Bach’s
style, though sometimes in a rather romantic manner. In the
Overture, Passepied I is effectively dramatic and robust, and
it is followed by a gentler and slower Passepied II. The Gigue
is beautifully articulated. The Allemande which opens French
Suite No.5 is warmly played and Schiff gives delightful ornamental
variety on the repeats.
Schiff offers wonderful Bach playing of the highest quality.
This is for you if you are happy to hear Bach played on the
piano rather than the harpsichord.