Gould’s Goldbergs

3 March 2010

Wednesday


Several days ago at the library I checked out Glenn Gould: A State of Wonder, The Complete Goldberg Variations (1955 & 1981). I have checked this out previously, and I really should find my own copy as I enjoy it so much. I’ve listened to all of it every day (both discs, the 1955 recording and the 1981 recording) since I checked it out. The version of the impatient young man in a hurry runs a little over 38 minutes; the more meditative version of Gould’s older self, repeating some favorite variations and playing more sedately, runs to a little over 51 minutes. That’s almost fifteen minutes’ difference in two versions of the same score.

Today Gould’s work appears a little Quixotic. At the same time as the historically informed performance music was getting started in the middle of the twentieth century (Thurston Dart published his The Interpretation of Music in 1954), Gould made his famous recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on a piano, not a harpsichord. Some harpsichord music performed on a piano sounds downright strange, if not plainly wrong; it is not always a pleasant experience to hear such an effort. That Gould’s effort sounds as good as it does is a measure of his artistry. Gould’s Goldbergs are an interpretation in the best sense.

Quixotic though it is, Gould’s Goldbergs still pulse with life, the 1981 version no less than the 1955 version. Already the more “recent” recording is close to thirty years old. The music itself is more than 250 years old, and perhaps we should note this as well when we note that the music no less than the performance pulses with life. It is the clockwork life of the Enlightenment, the same sort of clockwork that Paley in his famous work on natural theology employed in a classic formulation of the design argument. Bach’s superior artistry, like the superiority of Gould’s artistry, is in evidence from his effortless ability to take this baroque clockwork and transform it into something transcendent. When we recall that Pergolesi lived and died young (and wrote his Stabat Mater) all before Bach died, and accomplished something so different at the same time, it can give us a feel for what Bach accomplished.

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