Saturday, 1 January 2011

The Goldberg Variations 30 years on

Glenn Gould (1932-1982) - Bench statue, Toronto

Happy New Year! Now that 2011 is upon us, I thought it might be appropriate to revisit Glenn Gould's recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations BWV988, made 30 years ago in 1981, and compare it with a 'modern' performance. It is hard to describe to a younger generation just what a sensation Gould's 1981 recording made when it was released; looking back one understands that much of its appeal was due to the fact that Gould's vision of the piece, so rarely for the time, did not pass through the prism of the 19th century, for instance the almost complete absence of any 'romantic' pianistic reflexes, like rubato, sustaining pedal etc..

It is interesting to hear this radio interview Gould gave in 1981 to co-incide with the release of the new recording, and where he compares this recording to the previous one he had made in 1955. It includes his famous disparaging remark, referring to the 1955 version, that "there is a lot of 'piano-playing' going on there."

Thus Gould did not see himself as in any way opposed to the 'historically informed' approach to Bach which was at that time just beginning to make its presence felt, except that he did not view his own approach as any less 'authentic' than theirs. Here then is Glenn Gould performing the complete Goldberg Variations, in a film made by Bruno Monsaingeon in 1981 during the recording sessions in New York.

A still electrifying performance that sounds anything but dated, but how different to this one, by Pierre Hantai in 2000 at the Villa Medici in Rome:-

Conclusions? For me the main differences are that while Gould's interpretation brings to the fore the structural aspects of the piece, its verticality and contrapuntal complexity, Hantai's, in addition to its flexibility and the attention given to articulation and phrasing, sounds far more cantabile. The structure is still there, but the melodic flow is much more apparent. Most striking of all, however, is the question of geographical co-ordinates: one can hear how Gould, for all his heroic efforts to shake off the baneful influence of the 19th century, is still fully immersed in the musical culture that I grew up in myself, that of the primacy of German music. Thirty years later, it is clear that the musical centre of gravity has moved southwards, back to its rightful home: Italy.

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