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.

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Comments (10)
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  • 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.

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