Goldberg Variations, complete sessions CD review – Glenn Gould's obsession, meticulously assembled

Glenn Gould
(Sony Classical, 7 CDs and LP)

Few pianists are more closely identified with a single work than Glenn Gould. Though over his short career he played and recorded a vast range of the keyboard repertoire – from William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons to Schoenberg and his pupils – it was the music of JS Bach, and the Goldberg Variations in particular, with which his name became indelibly linked. Gould made two studio recordings of the Goldberg, the second in 1981, just over a year before his death at the age of 50, but it was his earlier recording, made in 1955 and released the following year, that acquired legendary status, and defined him as an outstanding musician of the 20th century.

Gould famously gave no public performances after 1964, opting to work only in the studio. Since his death, his recorded legacy has maintained his stature. In the forefront of that have remained the two Goldberg recordings, which Columbia/CBS, and later Sony Classical, have re-released in many different editions. This latest concentrates exclusively on the 1955 recording, and is the most exhaustive yet, including every take from the sessions, presented variation by variation.

It constitutes detailed documentation of Gould’s quest for his ideal Bach performance – his obsession with every detail, his insistence on getting the articulation of every semiquaver in every bar exactly as he imagined it, sometimes to the audible exasperation of the producer, Howard Scott. There are multiple takes of every variation, each subtly distinct in tempo and nuance, from which the definitive performance as it eventually appeared on LP was later spliced together. Taken together they also demonstrate the unwavering virtuosity of Gould’s playing, and the startling clarity he seemed effortlessly able to bring to the densest contrapuntal textures.

Glenn Gould at rest.
Gould at rest. Photograph: Fred Plaut

It’s sumptuously packaged. As well as the complete sessions, which take up five CDs, the set includes a disc containing Gould’s 1981 interview on the Goldbergs with the critic Tim Page, and the final edited performance, both as a facsimile of the original 1956 LP, remastered and pressed on high-density vinyl, and as a CD. There’s also a fascinating coffee-table book, copiously illustrated, which includes all the original sound engineer’s tape sheets and transcripts of exchanges between Gould and his producer, printed in parallel with an Urtext edition of Bach’s score.

Unless you’re a Gould completist perhaps it isn’t a must-have, but it is an extraordinary document, meticulously assembled, and as a bit of a Gould fanatic myself I found it totally compelling. In any case, one or other of Gould’s Goldberg recordings, and preferably both, should be in every CD collection.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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