Watch Glenn Gould Perform His Last Great Studio Recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1981)

“The best rea­son to hate Bach’s Gold­berg Vari­a­tions,” writes pianist Jere­my Denk, “is that every­body loves them.” As part of Denk’s icon­o­clas­tic chal­lenge to this uni­ver­sal love, he cites anoth­er rea­son: “every­one asks you all the time which of the two Glenn Gould record­ings you pre­fer.” With­out a doubt the most cel­e­brat­ed pianist of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, and per­haps the great­est inter­preter of Bach’s key­board com­po­si­tions, the eccen­tric genius Gould famous­ly opened and closed his career with the Gold­berg Vari­a­tions, Bach’s “annoy­ing­ly unim­peach­able” (in Denk’s words) Baroque piece, writ­ten orig­i­nal­ly for the harp­si­chord. Gould made his first record­ing of the piece in 1955, and it imme­di­ate­ly launched him to star­dom, becom­ing “what may well be the best known of all piano record­ings,” Col­in Flem­ing tells us, with its “mas­ter­ful show­ing of com­mand, bal­ance, [and] vig­or.”

Twen­ty-six years lat­er, Gould made his sec­ond record­ing, in 1981, a year before his untime­ly death at the age of 50. Gould had already retired from pub­lic per­for­mance 18 years ear­li­er, due in part to his stage fright, but also to a devo­tion to stu­dio record­ing tech­niques that allowed him total con­trol over his musi­cal out­put. The filmed record­ing ses­sion of Gould’s sec­ond Vari­a­tions, above, opens with a shot not of the pianist and his instru­ment, but of the bank of ana­logue dials and switch­es inside the studio’s con­trol booth. As the cam­era pans over and push­es in to Gould him­self at the piano, we hear the famil­iar melody of the Gold­berg aria, slowed to a snail’s pace. Gould sits in his famil­iar hunched-over pos­ture, look­ing aged beyond his years, his body sway­ing over the keys in an expres­sive gen­u­flec­tion to the piece that made him more famous—and more controversial—than per­haps any oth­er clas­si­cal musi­cian.

The shift in Gould’s style between the two Gold­berg record­ings is remark­able. Revis­it­ing Gould’s lega­cy thir­ty years after his death, pianist Steven Osbourne writes in The Guardian of the 1981 per­for­mance above:

The con­tra­pun­tal detail he finds in every bar is amaz­ing; no one has equalled the way he plays the aria. But even more extra­or­di­nary is the line he cre­ates that con­nects the whole piece. I’m not sure I have heard any­thing where every sin­gle note is placed so care­ful­ly, is so care­ful­ly thought about. For some peo­ple, it’s too con­trolled, but I don’t find that.

“And yet,” says Osbourne, “I pre­fer his 1955 record­ing of the piece. I can’t think of a sin­gle artist who made such a pro­found change in their approach to a piece through­out their whole career.” Cer­tain­ly Gould’s first Gold­berg recording—fueled, as the lin­er notes inform us, by five bot­tles of pills, “all dif­fer­ent col­ors and prescriptions”—stands as per­haps the most idio­syn­crat­ic, and mem­o­rable, ren­der­ing of Bach’s com­po­si­tion. But while the first per­for­mance has “speed and light­ness going for it,” writes Erik Tarloff in Slate, the sec­ond has “an autum­nal grace and the mar­velous clar­i­ty Gould seems to priv­i­lege above all oth­er qual­i­ties.” Luck­i­ly for us, Gould, who “nev­er record­ed the same piece twice,” but for this “sig­nif­i­cant excep­tion,” left us these two career book­ends to debate, and enjoy, end­less­ly.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Glenn Gould Explains the Genius of Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach (1962)

Glenn Gould Offers a Strik­ing­ly Uncon­ven­tion­al Inter­pre­ta­tion of 1806 Beethoven Com­po­si­tion

The Art of Fugue: Gould Plays Bach

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

by | Permalink | Comments (10) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (10)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Paul says:

    I would hard­ly say that Gould is “with­out a doubt” the 20th cen­tu­ry’s most cel­e­brat­ed pianist. Obvi­ous­ly, he’s one of them, but come on. Does Horowitz not count? For that mat­ter, do Thelo­nious Monk and Bill Evans not count?

  • Peter says:

    There’s an inter­est­ing book called The Los­er by Thomas Bern­hard about two pianists who stud­ied with Glenn Gould. When they heard Gould play­ing they realised they com­plete­ly lacked his genius. One gave up play­ing alto­geth­er and the oth­er com­mit­ted sui­cide. After hear­ing these record­ings many many times myself, I can under­stand these reac­tions.

  • Alexov says:

    Dear Josh, I ask you to edit your text. I, too, read the “with­out a doubt” phrase, and imme­di­ate­ly want­ed to put this com­ment, hap­pi­ly find­ing that some­one had beat­en me to it. Not only were there dozens, if not hun­dreds, of great pianists in the pre­vi­ous cen­tu­ry but plen­ty of them could chal­lenge Gould for the “great­est” title. Gould was no Art Tatum, for exam­ple, and steered clear of Beethoven’s last sonatas, as far as I know. It very much depends on your grounds for great­ness.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Paul and Alex­ov: I meant only to com­pare Gould to oth­er clas­si­cal pianists, but even in that respect I’m sure I over­stat­ed. I here­by amend my “with­out a doubt” to “arguably.”

  • Jim says:

    Some­one who talks about “the best rea­son to hate” the Gold­bergs is speak­ing, I would think, out of some unfor­tu­nate­ly inbred con­ser­va­to­ry cul­ture. The Gold­bergs are a mas­ter­piece, this is an eas­i­ly defen­si­ble posi­tion. Because they have become pop­u­lar among peo­ple who rarely lis­ten to any oth­er clas­si­cal piano music is not the fault of Bach. Hat­ing the Gold­berg’s because of their pop­u­lar­i­ty is to speak like a petu­lant and pre­ten­tious child. GG was cer­tain­ly a strong­ly indi­vid­ual pianist, with amaz­ing­ly acute aur­al skills and an idio­syn­crat­ic tech­nique that was extra­or­di­nar­i­ly clear and pre­cise. I love many of his record­ings. To be “great” depends to a cer­tain extent on how you choose to mea­sure an artist’s qual­i­ties. In my opin­ion, some of GG’s record­ings are among the great­est I have heard. I could say the same about Clara Hask­il, Alfred Cor­tot, Wil­helm Kempff, Arturo Benedet­ti Michelan­geli, I could VERY eas­i­ly say the same about near­ly all of Dinu Lipat­ti’s record­ings and many of Horow­itz’s. John Ogden’s record­ing of the Beethoven opus 106 is, I think, very very great. Rudolf Serk­in’s record­ings of the Reger Bach vari­a­tions are a con­stant inspi­ra­tion to me. Edwin Fis­cher’s per­for­mances of the slow move­ments of the Brahms f minor sonata and the Schu­mann Fas­ta­sy are rev­e­la­to­ry. My expe­ri­ence is that many of the peo­ple who talk about GG being the great­est pianist tend not to lis­ten to many oth­er pianists very deeply, or favor GG’s approach so that any­one else is con­sid­ered good in so far as they imi­tate GG, which is some­thing that has hap­pened much since his trag­i­cal­ly ear­ly death. I deeply admire much of GG’s work, but I equal­ly admire the work of many oth­er pianists, too, and I think it shows a lack of respect for these won­der­ful artists when peo­ple ignore them to fetishize Gould. I’m pret­ty sure, hav­ing read all of GG’s avail­able writ­ings sev­er­al times, that he would not have want­ed to have his col­leagues treat­ed in this way. And to Alex­ov, one of GG’s ear­li­est record­ings was of the last three Beethoven sonatas. I think it is one of his best.

  • Alexov says:

    Thanks Jim, for all of that. My father, who man­aged to steer me onto a life­long love of Beethoven before he passed away, was a great admir­er of both GG and John Ogden. Thanks to your reminders of all those great pianists, I now have infor­ma­tion about what to look for. Youtube any­one? We are so lucky to be alive now.

  • Alexov says:

    OgdOn! Old spelling habits die hard. I have remem­bered that some time ago, maybe in ’73, I bought a vinyl LP of John Ogdon play­ing works by some less­er known Russ­ian composer/s who’d been renowned vir­tu­osos in their own life­time. Right now, I am lis­ten­ing to Ogdon play­ing the Op 111 on a youtube chan­nel devot­ed to dif­fer­ent ver­sions of that great work.

  • jack says:


  • Quaverly says:

    Osbourne is right about Gould’s genius for illu­mi­nat­ing coun­ter­point and con­nec­tion between vari­a­tions. For those argu­ing about whether Jones right­ful­ly award­ed Gould the title of “great­est pianist,” you might be pleased to know that Gould him­self would have hap­pi­ly hand­ed the crown to some­one else; his cri­tique of the 1955 record­ing was that there was “too much piano play­ing,” which he meant in the most unflat­ter­ing way. The truth is that by com­plete­ly under­stand­ing and express­ing the vari­a­tions in a way that only he and Bach have as of yet proven pos­si­ble, Gould has secured a posi­tion as one of the great­est musi­cal minds of all time, far and away dis­tin­guish­ing him­self from being a “mere pianist.”

  • Quaverly says:

    Edit­ed for clar­i­ty:

    Gould’s cri­tique of his 1955 record­ing was that there was “too much piano play­ing,” which he meant in the most unflat­ter­ing way.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.