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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (1742) [45:39]
Partita No. 5 in G major, BWV 929 (1720) [10:00]
Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 930 (1720) [20:05]
Glenn Gould (piano)
rec. live 21 June, 1954, CBC Canada (Goldberg Variations); 29 & 31 July, 1 August, 1957, Columbia 30th Studio, New York City (Partitas)
Pristine XR Ambient Stereo

There are four extant recordings of Glenn Gould playing this masterwork: the two widely known and oft compared studio recordings of 1955 and1981, the live Salzburg recital from 1959 and this lesser-known live radio broadcast made for CBC in 1954, for which Gould arranged to have 33rpm acetate discs made for his private use.

Two things must first be established: the sound, for all Andrew Rose’s habitual wizardry in cleaning it up, stabilising it and applying the Ambient Stereo effect, remains quite poor; secondly, that in consequence, and given that it is closes in interpretative characteristics to the studio recording the following year, its historical and sentimental significance to Gould fans as his first known recording is probably as great as, if not greater than, its artistic worth.

Nonetheless, the ear very quickly adapts to the final result, one is so quickly swept up and along by Gould’s technical brilliance and aesthetic invention. A palpable sense of joy and enjoyment pervades the whole enterprise – and for some a further bonus derives from the fact that Gould has yet to acquire his besetting habit of humming along with his playing; that quirk becomes apparent in the two appended Partitas recorded only three years later, which are of course also in considerably better studio sound and thus reveal the singing obbligato more (dis)obligingly.

The differences between 1955 and 1981 have been exhaustively analysed and debated; they are apparent even to the casual listener. In the case of comparison between the 1955 recording – whose remastering by Pristine I reviewed in December 2013 - and this one, the differences are subtler, but they are there despite the performances clearly being first cousins. Astonishingly, the playing here in the one-take broadcast is still virtually flawless without the benefit enjoyed in the studio of splicing takes, but even Gould cannot approach quite the velocity he apparently achieves in the fastest movements in 1955; he has to take things just a shade steadier to allow for the possibility of slips in a live performance and consequently the overall timing is some seven minutes slower. The fingerwork in Variation 5 is still phenomenal, as is the bravura of no. 14; the snap and clarity of the voices he articulates in contrapuntal conversation still astonish and the sheer, rambunctious energy of his playing is overwhelming. Yet he begins with a surprisingly relaxed statement of the Aria, its nonchalant application of rubato and dreamy phrasing serving to contrast vividly with the moto perpetuo propulsiveness of the following first variation and sounding more relaxed than the brisker, crisper account a year later. Similarly, the “Black Pearl” is deeply still, tragic and reflective; Gould is as mercurially adaptive as ever.

The two Partitas find him in another mode: grand and hieratic in utterance but with the same bravura in evidence; they have previously been remastered and issued on other labels, as has this live recording, but I guarantee that none will sound as good as these here on Pristine.

True believers will be intrigued by and want to own this; the general listener who loves Gould might conclude that ownership of the two studio recordings is sufficient.

Ralph Moore



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