Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations: genius and beauty in equal measure

May 27 2021, by Patrick Maxwell

Glenn Gould’s reputation for many now resides in his own personal struggles as much as it does in his playing; such is the fate of many performers who leave behind no new works of their own for other generations. A cynic would say that it helped his career; it would be better to say that the two were unerringly hand in hand together. As, among the various faces of the piano, the Kempffs, the Rubinsteins, the Pollini, even the Barenboims, none come as recognisable as the instinctive, pulsating individualism of Gould. The only easy thing to say about him would be the two tragedies of his life: that it was so short, and that it seems to have been encapsulated in the bars of fifty minutes of music.

Gould made two recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the first released in 1955 and the second in 1981. Their differences are as astounding as their similarities; of course all the notes are the same, of course they both possess the same devotion to contrapuntal textures. Put simply, the first is more youthful, exuberant, fast, the second sombre, slower, more beset by the travails of middle-age. Gould made one in his twenties and the other in his late forties. For us, the second was near the end of his life, so it carries as much of a reflective sonority as the first does a lively panache. For the pianist, they were simply two different interpretations, based on experience and maturing. For us, they now manage to signify the signposts of his curtailed life.

It’s unfair that Gould’s name is, for those who know, almost always associated with this piece. Yet his legacy in recreating it, and popularising it, for a modern audience deserves the same respect as the rebirth of, say Mahler, or Schoenberg in the late half of the Twentieth century. The Goldbergs were, as much of Bach’s greatest works had been before, known only by the most niche devotees, obscure in their apparent insistence on the beauty of theory rather than the theory of beauty which so underlines Bach’s approach. Gould showed that the two could act as one; any listener to the B Minor Mass or the Well-Tempered Clavier would be able to affirm that this was something the Leipzig cantor could do pretty well.

The piece opens with the Aria, the most simple exposition of the chord sequence, based on the falling G major scale which miraculously remains central throughout. In the first recording, Gould’s playing seems more driven, as though we were just warming up for the fugues and semi-quaver runs to come. In the second, every note is held back, prized, and released, as though caught in permanent limbo between bars. When the faster variations come, the effect is startling; not only the speed by the dynamics and the whole being of the piece shifts constantly between the youthful urge and the more ponderous melody of the left hand. Each part seems to be its own voice or its own piece of scaffolding to create the flowing of the entire structure. Gould makes Bach seem – as all of his best interpreters have – eminently simple while still bringing out every intricacy and countermelody.

The more playful next few numbers dance around the same figure, layers of legato accompanied by bursts of the more staccato from both hands. Bach creates perhaps one of the most seemingly natural fugues; Gould’s playing makes it so that to listen to just part is enough, and to try to take the whole structure as one dauntingly powerful.

The fifth variation is the fastest, made so by the semi-quaver runs and the switching bass hand. Yet within moments we’re back into the stately contemplation of the same melody, always going forwards to the G major chord or the progression into B minor and then back home.

There is no one moment of highest intensity in this piece; though the darker realms of the twenty-fifth variation seem to echo the withheld nature of the first Aria. Here Bach is introducing material not out of place a hundred years after his time; this from a man who did more than any to set any standard at all for the whole of the keyboard repertoire at his own time. This moment in the piece goes on for the longest; gone are the pacy skirmishes through the figure, replaced by the diminished inversions and the turning idiosyncrasy of the new melody.

There is quick return to the energy of the first section before, but under Gould’s 1981 handling it’s again refrained, as though he could tell us what’s going to happen, and the inevitable fate of the repeating Aria propelling even this music onwards. The penultimate Variations ends on a jarringly triumphant note, making it seem as though the piece has almost finished its justified conclusion before being brought to the same breathtakingly ethereal start. Gould was known to be an extraordinary practitioner on the instrument, in that he felt the music more than any other pianist who claimed to be able to do the same. You can hear, at various points in his playing, and loud mature voice singing in the background then dying out again, as if he was trying to remind himself of how it all goes. Recording engineers struggled to remove any of this; the myth was that Gould never practised, so every playing through was perhaps all he could get. The other myth about Gould is that he was a wholly mentally disturbed man who happened to be a music genius. Anyone who can listen to his playing knows that only the most humane of people could play like that.

Patrick Maxwell, Fifth

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