Beyond Glenn Gould: Five Great 'Goldberg Variations'

By Benjamin K. Roe

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Its status as an icon of Bach recordings secure, Glenn Gould's 1955 account is also just the starting point for exploring a wealth of other performances.


Just as Miles Davis' Kind of Blue was one of those jazz albums you saw in the collections of people who otherwise didn't listen to jazz, Glenn Gould's 1955 LP of Bach's Goldberg Variations stuck out in record collections otherwise devoid of classical music.

Gould's Goldbergs introduced millions of Americans to a breathtakingly new sonic landscape. Davis achieved his unique sound by introducing ancient musical modes to the world of jazz. Gould, on the other hand, unlocked the hitherto unknown emotional depths of Bach's powerfully mathematical musical intellect.

In short, Glenn Gould gave Bach soul — and Bach gave Gould great source material. Picking five great recordings of the Goldberg Variations these days without mentioning Gould is a little like leaving Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band out of a list of greatest rock albums of all time.

Love Gould or hate him, without him we wouldn't be discussing this — or any other — list of recordings of what has been called the longest, most ambitious and most important solo keyboard work written before Beethoven. As you ponder that, consider what else Gould wrought: His was the first prominent album devoted to Bach's magisterial 32-movement work. The tally of recordings today is no fewer than 193. So, leaving Gould to his own category, here are some highly personal and subjective recommendations.
 

Busoni's Vision

Ferruccio Busoni, arguably the most ardent champion of Bach in his — or any — time, was the first to revive the Goldbergs in concert (1914), though characteristically he performed them in his decidedly personal and virtuosic style, lovingly recalled in this recording by German pianist Claudius Tanski. Busoni also decided that the entire piece was too long and unsuited for the concert hall; hence the Busoni Goldbergs omit 10 of the 30 variations and divide the rest into three parts. At least Busoni got the use of three parts right — some musicologists argue that Bach's choice to bookend his aria with 30 variations was a deliberate attempt to express "the trinity times ten fingers."

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Listen to Busoni's version of the Goldberg 'Aria' with pianist Claudius Tanski:


 

Landowska the Pioneer

Any survey of the Goldbergs has to include Wanda Landowska's original 1933 account — the first full recording of the Goldberg Variations. Much as in Glenn Gould's LP recording from 22 years later, you can hear the sound of history being made as Landowska carefully and somewhat quirkily charts the maiden voyage through the Goldberg archipelago on her sturdy (if wholly inauthentic) Pleyel harpsichord. Also noteworthy is the fact that Landowska was the first of a series of fiercely individual female keyboard artists (including Rosalyn Tureck, Angela Hewitt and more recently Simone Dinnerstein) who have made some of the most distinctive Goldbergs recordings around.

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Listen Landowska's Variation No. 5:


 

Perahia's Perfection

In the modern piano era, there are dozens of worthy candidates for a "straight ahead" version of the Goldbergs — clean, unhurried, technically unassailable yet emotionally rich performances. For my money — or, more to the point, your money — look no further than Murray Perahia. Critic David Hurwitz gets it right when he says these Goldbergs offer "incontestable evidence of Perahia's penetrating musical intellect, sensitivity to emotional nuance, and exceptional technical gifts." A can't-miss choice.

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Listen to Perahia's Variation No. 1:


 

Staier's Kaleidoscopic Harpsichord

You can't have a "Great Goldbergs" list without including at least one recording on the instrument for which it was intended: a two-manual (that is, two-keyboard) harpsichord. Point of fact is that playing the Goldbergs on a single keyboard instrument means that a pianist has to resort to tricks, compromises, fudging or outright studio chicanery to play all the notes as Bach wrote them. Happily, harpsichord recordings — and the quality of both the instruments and their performers — have long since evolved from being mere academic curiosities. Case in point is this 2010 recording by German harpsichordist Andreas Staier on a reproduction of a 1734 instrument "with so many stops with exotic colors and textures that suddenly the piano seems challenged," in the words of my WGBH colleague Brian McCreath. It comes with a fascinating bonus DVD for confirmed Goldberg geeks.

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Listen to Staier's Variation No. 20:


 

Sitkovetsky's Game Changer

From Glenn Gould in 1955 to Simone Dinnerstein's debut in 2005, every decade seems to have its game-changing Goldbergs. In the decade before Dinnerstein, it belonged to Russian-born violinist Dmitri Sitkovetsky, who in 1995 made this transformative recording of his own string orchestra arrangement with the New European Strings. "Sitkovetsky has turned the Goldberg Variations into a tone poem," raved one critic. The sensitive, nuanced recording confirmed that the greatness of the Goldbergs could go far beyond the keyboard, opening the floodgates for new interpretative possibilities, which in recent years have included solo harp, string trio and even a band of Renaissance viols.

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Listen to Sitkovetsky's Variation No. 30:




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