Saturday, February 18, 2012

Glenn Gould: A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981

Glenn Gould's career and life are bookended by two very different versions of Bach's Goldberg Variations. For all their differences they might as well be named Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

His 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations established him as a marvel. The 1955 recording is marked by some of the most astoundingly fast and technically complex piano work since Lizt. He played with a precision Wendy Carlos' synthesizers would envy if only they were able. The 1955 recording is not merely a technical wonder but an emotional thrill as well. It is a young man's exploration of the instrument to which he has devoted himself. It is the ultimate expression of youthful virtuosity.

The 1981 recording was completed roughly one year before Glenn Gould's death. Included in this three disc set is an interview Gould did with Tim Page shortly before his death. To hear Gould discuss the shortcomings of his 1955 recording (at one point he states that he understands why some are drawn to his youthful work, but that he has grown well beyond it) you get the sense that over the years Gould added wisdom to his virtuosity. The 1981 recording is not the same technical marvel his 1955 recording was. The tempos are generally slower, and Gould repeats some of the variations, something he did not do in the 1955 recording. The 1981 recording is marked by a mastery, not just of the instrument, but of the music itself and its meaning.

I honestly could not be forced to choose between the two. They represent the remarkable musical journey of Glenn Gould's life. One may speculate as to whether or not Gould recorded the variations again because he knew the end was near (he probably always thought the end was near. He was a legendary hypochondriac). Whether he knew or not, these two recordings are the bookends of his musical career. One cannot be considered without the other and neither can be left out of any serious discussion of Gould's music.

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