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Bach Goldberg Variations BWV 988, played by two different virtuosi

By December 25, 2018No Comments

The “Goldberg” Variations is the last of a series of keyboard music Bach published under the title of Clavierübung, and is often regarded as the most serious and ambitious composition ever written for harpsichord. Based on a single ground bass theme, the variations display not only Bach’s exceptional knowledge of diverse styles of music of the day but also his exquisite performing techniques. Being also the largest of all clavier pieces published during the Baroque period, the work soars high above others in terms of its encyclopaedic character. From this, it is often considered that it sums up the entire history of Baroque variation, the Diabelli Variations by Beethoven being the Classical counterpart. However, doomed perhaps by its requirements of virtuoso techniques from a performer, it was not as popularly known as the Well-Tempered Clavier, which was not even published during the composer’s lifetime. Nonetheless, the work has long been regarded as the most important set of variations composed in the Baroque era: in 1774 Johann Philipp Kirnberger, one of Bach’s pupils, referred to it as “the best variations”, while in 1802 Johann Nicolaus Forkel, the author of the first ever biography of J. S. Bach, praised the work as the “model, according to which all variations should be made”.

I will present two very different versions of the Goldberg Variations.  One is played on a harpsichord by Wanda Landowska, a virtuoso.  This recording was made in 1950.  There is another famous recording made in 1933.

Glen Gould was widely known as an expert in Bach.  His first recording of the Goldberg Variations was made in 1955 and played on the piano.  He revisited the piece and made a second recording in 1981.  The excerpts below are from the second recording.  See which one you like better.  Perhaps you will like them both for different reasons.

Wanda Landowska:  Landowska has already been presented in this blog.

Aria:  Andante expressivo

Variation 1:  Allegro moderato

Variation 2:  Allegretto

Variation 3:   Canone all’unisuono (Poco andante, ma con moto)

Variation 4:  L’istesso movimento


The rest can be found on Bach, Goldberg Variations BWV 988, Wanda Landowska youtube, recorded in approximately 1945

Glen Gould:

Aria – Andante expressivo

Variation 1:  Allegro moderato

Variation 2:  Allegretto

Variation 3:   Canone All’unisuono (Poco andante, ma con moto)

Variation 4:  L’istesso movimento


The rest of the piece can be found at Bach, Goldberg Variations, Glen Gould 1981, youtube

Glen Gould

Born: September 25, 1932 – Toronto, Canada
Died: October 4, 1982 – Toronto, Canada

The remarkable Canadian pianist (also organist, conductor, and composer), Glenn (Herbert) Gould, was born into a musical family: Edvard Grieg was a first cousin of his mother’s grandfather, his father was an amateur violinist, and his mother played piano and organ. Gould’s mother was his only teacher until he was ten. When he was three years old, it became evident that he possessed exceptional musical aptitude, including absolute pitch and even the ability to read staff notation. At five, he began to compose, and played his own little compositions for family and friends. At the age of six Gould was taken to his first live musical performance which was Josef Hofmann’s last appearance in Toronto. It created a lasting and important impression upon the boy.

Robert Fulford, a distinguished Canadian author, met Gould when they were both nine and the two families were next-door neighbours. He wrote: “Even as a child Glenn was isolated because he was working like hell to be a great man. He had a tremendous feeling and loving affection for music. . . It was an utter, complete feeling. He knew who he was and where he was going.”

At the age of ten, Gould began lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Alberto Guerrero was his piano teacher; he studied organ with Frederick C. Silvester and theory with Leo Smith. Gould competed in 1944, at the age of 12, in the annual Kiwanis Music Festival and won the piano trophy. It was to be the only competition Gould would enter, for he later came to be strongly opposed to the idea of young musicians competing with each other and indeed to competition of any sort. In 1945 he passed the associateship examination as a solo performer at the Royal Conservatory, signifying a professional level of attainment. In 1946, at the age of 14, he passed the music theory examinations and was awarded a diploma with highest honors. Gould continued piano lessons with Alberto Guerrero until 1952.

Of significant influence upon the teenage Gould were: Artur Schnabel (Gould: “The piano was a means to an end for him, and the end was to approach Beethoven”), Rosalyn Tureck’s recordings of J.S. Bach (“upright, with a sense of repose and positiveness”) and Leopold Stokowski, about whom Gould would later write and produce Stokowski: A Portrait for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

Gould’s first public performance was in 1945 on the organ, a concert which was reviewed under the headline “Boy, age 12, Shows Genius As Organist.” In 1946 he made his debut as soloist with orchestra at a Royal Conservatory concert performing L.v. Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Regarding this occasion, Gould wrote that it required little preparation because he had owned Schnabel’s recording for over two years and knew every nuance. The following year Gould played the same concerto with the Toronto Symphony and a reviewer wrote: “he sat at the piano a child among professors, and he talked with them as one with authority.” His first public recital was in 1947 and included Scarlatti, L.v. Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, and Franz Liszt: “genius as profound as their own was at the keyboard” remarked one reviewer. Gould gave his first network radio recital for the CBC in 1950, beginning his long relationship with broadcasting and recording.

On the evening of 11 January 1955, Glenn Gould made his debut in New York (“Debutown” as he called it) and the next day signed a recording contract with Columbia Masterworks (CBS). Gould’s first recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) took place at the CBS studios in June 1955. The record won instant acclaim, became a best seller, and launched Gould’s career as a fully mature international artist. Gould went on to make over 60 recordings with CBS Masterworks/Sony Classical.

In 1957 Gould toured Europe for the first time, beginning with two weeks in the Soviet Union. He thus became the first Canadian (and the first North American) to perform in the Soviet Union, and he did so – in the midst of the Cold War – to eagerly enthusiastic audiences and critics. Also during his European tour, Gould performed L.v. Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan, and the two artists thereafter remained loyal admirers of each other’s work. In 1960 Gould made his first appearance on American television with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. He was by then a well-known figure on Canadian television and was present regularly on the airwaves in his home country during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Gould’s concert career continued to grow during the early 1960’s until, without any fanfare, he made his last public appearance as a pianist on 10 April 1964 in a Los Angeles recital. This early retirement from public performance was prompted in part by a realization that the strenuous life of a touring musician was preventing him from realizing his many other interests. In fact, Gould did not think of himself primarily as a pianist; he was equally committed to writing, broadcasting, composing, conducting, and experimenting with technology. Gould also admitted that he had developed an intense dislike for performing (Gould: “at live concerts I feel demeaned, like a vaudevillian”) and felt that he could better serve music in a recording studio than in the concert hall.

Gould has sometimes been called a hermit and a recluse. He was not. He chose for himself a solitary existence which kept interaction at a safe distance, showing himself primarily through his recordings, broadcasts, and writings, providing self-protection but at the same time allowing a great deal of self-revelation. As he once said. he had “opted out creatively”.

Glenn Gould’s philosophy and the core of his identity were most clearly revealed in his broadcast/recording The Idea of North. To him, the North represented solitude, independence, reasonableness, courage, elusiveness, spirituality, strength of character, adherence to laws, moral rectitude, and peace. He was uncomfortable with the Mediterranean temperament that manifests itself in bright colors, displays of passion, and personal display.

In 1981 Gould departed from his custom of not re-recording a work and, 26 years after his first recording of the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988), went into the same New York studio for his second recording of the work with which he had become so closely identified. Gould viewed the two interpretations as substantially different because he came to see the Variations not as separate and distinct exercises but as belonging to a larger whole, with one rhythmic pulse, harmony, and ideology underlying the entire work and forming a definite unity of composition. Always acutely aware of the possibilities technology offers, Gould was also motivated in his decision to re-record the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) by the vast changes in recording technology during the previous 25 years.

A few months before his death, Glenn Gould formed a chamber orchestra in Toronto consisting of some members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with himself as conductor. He was particularly proud of their recording together of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, a work that had long been special to him and which he transcribed for piano and recorded.

Through a remarkable degree of self-awareness and self-knowledge, Glenn Gould knew what he wanted to accomplish and how he wanted to live his life – and in both he succeeded completely. What some have considered strange was in fact, only different. Even though he chose to be a spectator rather than a participant in the affairs of the world, he never ceased to have a child-like, wide-eyed interest in all that was going on around him.

Glenn Gould gathered a large and loyal group of friends with whom he remained in contact over the telephone and whom he received in Toronto with eager enthusiasm. These friends describe him as gentle, kind, funny, charming, warm and loyal. Glenn Gould was a character to be sure, but one who never strayed from his pursuit of the ideal, and one who cared deeply. He was a solitary man, but he touched and uplifted the lives of many. Glenn Gould died in Toronto on October 4, 1982, after having suffered a stroke.

Taken from