… are what Mr. & Mrs. Goldberg did on their wedding night.’ The amusing quip landed a celebrated BBC Radio 3 presenter in trouble with his bosses, though his humour was well placed: at the end of the work, before the return of the iconic opening ‘Aria’, Bach rounds off his sublime 30-strong variation sequence with a folksy, tuneful ‘quodlibet’ which, as Bach’s biographer Forkel explains, invokes a custom observed at Bach family reunions. ‘This kind of improvised harmonizing [meant] that they not only could laugh over it quite whole-heartedly themselves, but also aroused just as hearty and irresistible laughter in all who heard them.’ A joke then, and, more often than not, a pretty saucy one. This enriching variation is repeated numerous times – with its first half repeated – as played in 1981 by Glenn Gould for the sessions of the second of his two Sony recordings of the complete work. His first, made in Manhattan in 1955, was reported to have sold 40,000 copies by 1960, and had sold more than 100,000 by the time of Gould’s death in 1982.

Over the years Gould’s earlier Goldbergs have been in and out of my collection like a yo-yo. Sometimes the shock alternation of deep rumination and dazzling finger work at speed has me hooked, sometimes not. By 1981 Gould had forged a more even path from variation to variation and while his pianism is no less brilliant than it was in 1955, his mind seems more settled – and of course the digital sound is vastly superior to its analogue predecessor.  But whichever way you look at it, Gould’s Goldberg’s did as much to bring Bach to a wider public as did Stokowski’s orchestration of the organ Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 and Dame Myra Hess’s piano transcription of the chorale ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’.     

In April and May 1981, while often recording late into the night, Gould and the CBS
Masterworks studio team, headed by producer Sam Carter, were joined by the French filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon, who was making a documentary series about Gould; Monsaingeon can also frequently be heard in the recordings.

This is Gould’s 90th anniversary year and it’s also 40 years since the second Goldberg’s first release, which makes Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations – The Complete Unreleased 1981 Recording Sessions (Sony Classical 194399774229, c£110.00, a similar collection devoted to the 1955 recording has already appeared) a uniquely detailed window onto the creation of this classic recording. Spread across 11 CDs, the set includes the double GRAMMY-winning final release as well as everything recorded during the 1981 sessions, restored from the original ¼-inch analogue tapes and mastered using 24 bit / 96 kHz technology. In addition to the takes themselves, the session recordings include Gould and the producers’ often mirthful conversations, all of which are transcribed in a hard-cover coffee-table book which also contains an annotated score.

What we have is Gould performing each variation, then tailing what he plays with the first bar or two of the next variation so that he can pick up where he left off. His pleas about having played a wrong note or missed a note at the close of a phrase are lost on me, such is the level of his perfectionism. But one thing’s for sure, once you’ve travelled the course of this amazing performance you’ll know the Goldberg Variations more thoroughly than your musical friends – unless they’ve bought the set for themselves (do try to encourage them, in musical terms it’s a fabulous investment).

Gould was just 22 when he taped his first set of the Goldbergs. I wonder what the 23-years-old Japanese pianist Mao Fujita will think of his first complete recorded set of Mozart’s sonatas in say ten years’ time? There’s bound to be a second, maybe even a third, but as with Gould’s two Sony Goldbergs there’ll also likely be a marked curve of interpretative development between them. This ‘first’ Mozart set (Sony Classical 196587 10762, 5 cds, c£52.00, due for release 7th October) recorded a couple of years ago in Berlin, is brilliant, imaginative but singularly unpredictable. 

Take the opening of the so-called Dürnitz Sonata K.284, motoric and bracing, then switch to the ‘Rondeau en Polonaise’ second movement and the ‘theme and variations’ finale where tempo shifts abound, and Mozart the Classicist anticipates his Romantic future self. Even more so the great A minor Sonata K.310 when in the dramatic first movement, taken at a fairly broad tempo, because of the way chords are weighted, Fujita’s left hand releases a wealth of harmonic colour (Peter Donohoe on SOMM is similarly effective). The late Lars Vogt (Ondine) has the main theme protest more loudly and in the second movement is less intent on seduction whereas for the movement’s great central episode Gould (Sony again) effects a noble arch that’s more striking than his quoted rivals, even though their chosen tempi are far slower. Then again Elisabeth Leonskaja (Warner Classics, my No. 1 digital choice in these works) nails the work’s tragic spirit with unique authority.

In the Andante of the F major K.533/494 Fujita’s sensitive but relatively straightforward approach doesn’t quite equal Mitsuko Uchida’s fastidious expressiveness (Philips/Decca). But to subject this excellent young pianist to such close comparative scrutiny seems a mite unfair. Mao Fujita is gifted almost to excess and everything he plays makes us wonder, what might he do next? It’s a question prompted in particular by hearing him play the Sonata No. 18 in D major K. 576. The bouncy opening Allegro suggests the hunt but come the Adagio second movement and we could as well be listening to a sketch for an aria for The Magic Flute. The idea had never occurred to me before I heard this memorable recording by Mao Fujita.

2 thoughts on “‘THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS ….

  1. Your comment about Glenn Gould’s Goldberg recordings having been in and out of your collection like a yo-yo chimed with me as, over the years, I’ve had mixed feelings about them, especially the 1955 original. From having been led to believe that this was outstanding genius I found myself being irritated by it. It felt like Bach had flown out of the window and this was the Glenn Gould Show. It had that smack of Sparky’s Magic Piano, the performance electronically speeded up (as in the Flight of the Bumble Bee on the Magic Piano recording) with a precocious Gould shouting “Look at me, Mom”.
    When I was given the 1981 recording as a Christmas present I was slightly spooked to hear ghostly whispering from the corner of the room as I sat alone, only to discover it was him humming along, mostly on the right channel. It sort of killed Bach and Gould for me until I heard somebody on Radio 3 a few years ago describing the 1955 performance almost as jazz. Whatever your opinion on that, it certainly made me re-think Gould’s artistry and I have come to live in peace with them and enjoy them anew.
    My only other recording of them is by Zuzana Ruzickova, an artist you introduced me through Essential Classics some years ago. However distinguished she is, and I love her playing Bach, Gould’s brilliance shines through. You understand why recordings of crowd pleasers such as The Four Seasons by Nigel Kennedy or Pavarotti singing Nessun dorma have sold in large quantities but you feel that, if it hadn’t been for Gould, the contrapuntal Goldberg Variations would have remained a niche recording in the Bach canon of works.


  2. Lawrence Letts

    Like both you and the previous commenter, my feelings about Gould’s 1955 Goldbergs have fluctuated over the years. Gould certainly offers amazing insights and I would want to have both the 1955 and 1981 recordings to hand. Purchasing the 11 CDs of everything recorded in the 1981 sessions does strike me as an act of singular devotion, although your enthusiastic advocacy does have me intrigued. I must confess that my ‘go-to’ piano version of the Goldbergs is Perahia’s; very satisfying on repeated listening.

    Your mention of Fujita’s new Mozart sonata set prompts me to ask whether you have had an opportunity to listen to Robert Levin’s new set played on Mozart’s piano. This set has given me such great pleasure since I got it just over a week ago- beautifully recorded, thoughtful phrasing and delightful ornamentation. Of course, Levin knows this music intimately and he is a wonderful guide.

    Best wishes to you and please accept my condolences for the loss of your cousin Paul.



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