I received a recording of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations that had attracted a lot of favourable critical attention a few years back. While I enjoyed the recording and find that it deserves much praise, I gradually find myself yearning to return to Glenn Gould’s final (1981) recording of Bach’s monumental masterpiece.
When Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations, the piece was considered to be quite a rarity, an obscure work more to be admired for its craftsmanship than enjoyed, and one that was only attempted by iconic figures such as Wanda Landowska. Since the release of the Gould recording, many pianists, amateur as well as professional, have wanted to scale the heights of Bach’s thirty variations on the simple Aria. The impact of Gould’s debut album cannot be overestimated. Many people, me included, have compared listening to that recording to a religious, life-changing experience. There are now dozens of recordings of the Goldberg, and sometimes the pianist’s concept can be almost as interesting as Bach’s design. None, however, even approached the emotional and musical heights achieved by Gould.
Gould’s 1981 recording of the Goldberg exists in two forms, a sound recording and a video of the performance. The takes for some of the variations are actually different in the recording and the film. Because there were limits to the quality of video technology in 1981, Gould was a little less picky about the sound for the film than for the recording. According to Kevin Bazzana in his wonderful biography of Gould, Wondrous Strange, he had fun “faking in sequences where he had to pantomime at the keyboard in order to synchronize visual with an existing soundtrack” - an extension of Gould’s idea of “creative cheating.”
I find the filmed version of the Goldberg even more compelling than the recording. Although the visual aspect of a performance probably does not add to its musical impact, there is a synergistic emotional effect in watching and listening to Gould’s playing. In his January 1956 recording of the Goldberg, the playing was effortless, and had a sense of fun, of exhilaration, almost like a kid showing off what he could do on a new bicycle. It was a performance of a young man in a hurry. In comparing the later recording with the earlier, the playing in the 1956 recording now sounds almost skittish and rushed.
In the 1981 performance of the Goldberg, there seems to be a great deal of suffering in the playing – not suffering in the physical sense, but spiritual suffering. When I think of that performance, I could not help but remember the words of Blessed John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Doloris, where the then Pontiff commented on the meaning of human suffering, that, “suffering seems to belong to man’s transcendence: it is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense ‘destined’ to go beyond himself.”
Gould’s performances on the piano almost always possess an intensely spiritual quality. It is, for me, this very quality that makes his music making a moving experience. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this 1981 performance of the Goldberg. I believe that Gould, in the performance of his life, really did suffer for his art, and the result is a performance that achieves transcendence, and one that borders on the divine. This single performance of the Goldberg, in my view, towers above any musical performance of any work, and makes it one of the most important recordings in the history of the gramophone. In the film, when you watch Gould’s returning to the theme at the end, his face is that of a person that no longer belongs to the physical world. Bach was speaking to us using Gould as the medium. This performance of Bach’s Goldberg was and is Gould’s own agony and ecstasy.
Blessed John Paul II once said, “They try to understand me from outside. But I can only be understood from inside.” Even two decades after Gould’s death, writings on Gould, even from highly intelligent individuals, still allude to his supposed idiosyncrasies. I believe that those people who dwelled upon such external traits of Gould’s are missing the essence of the man and the artist. Perhaps we should focus less on the external and focus on the internal, on Gould’s heart and soul, which he gave every time he touched the keys of the piano. And our world is richer because of it.