Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV988* [38:27]
Overture (Partita) in b minor in the French manner, BWV831** [25:28]
French Suite No.5, BWV816** [16:28]
Glenn Gould (piano)*
András Schiff (piano)**
rec. 1955. ADD (Gould); 1978. DDD (Schiff).
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 work.
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 and CDA67305) or as part of a set (CDS44421/35), each also available as mp3 or lossless downloads from 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. Brian Wilson)
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 Variation.
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.
Geoffrey Molyneux
Gould is highly virtuosic but ultimately unsatisfying. Schiff offers wonderful Bach playing of the highest quality.