Gould’s First Two Columbia Recordings – Bach and Beethoven

It’s surprising how different these two recordings are – Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s 30th-32nd sonatas.  They both bear the mark on the same performer, and though I still don’t know that I’m qualified to say things like “this performer’s take on such-and-such piece is better than that performer’s” or “this performer is better at x composer than y” – I think I can reservedly assert that the Bach is better than the Beethoven (not Bach is better than Beethoven generally, though he might be – just that this Bach is better than this Beethoven).  I’ll try to explain why.

Again, a methodological hesitation that it is tough to get my head around.  I first need to make sure I’m not just saying that Bach’s composition is more appealing to me than Beethoven’s, never mind Gould… what if Gould were doing an equally good job at performing them both, and it was just my preferences for the writing, and not the performance?  As a listener, I am two levels of abstraction away from the essence of the music: there is the composition itself and then there is the performer’s representation of that composition (three if we account for differences in recording quality).  How does one reach conclusions when there are so many dependent variables?  Again, I’ll try.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Gould’s 1955 recording of a then obscure part of the Bach catalog is what made him famous.  I first heard it when it was re-issued on CD about 10 years ago, together with the later 1982 recording and an interview with Gould himself, packaged as A State of Wonder.  I’m bidding on eBay on the 1st edition of the mono LP; for now, I have to settle for a re-issue I found in a Vancouver classical record store for 50 cents Canadian.  It’s also all over Spotify (if you want to listen, make sure it’s the 1955 version, which differs significantly from the 1982 one; most of what I’m about to say wouldn’t quite apply).

So what’s so special about this recording?  I’ve been struggling with this listening to it over and over again.  My first stab at explanation is more of a gesture/imperative – just listen to the first few tracks.  The first one – the Aria – is fine enough, presented with delicacy though much faster than the accustomed speed at which this piece had been played historically.  It’s a melody of simplicity and heart, played expressively and what the increased speed does – for me anyway – is give the recording a brightness, one that allows a 21st century listener to hear Bach without thinking they’re trapped in a Baroque church at an organ recital.  You do not think of powdered wigs when you listen to this.  Something of its transcendent quality suggests itself right away – like we’ve recently discussed, it doesn’t matter that you’re not a 17th century German and that you don’t know anything about music theory (neither do I), the work’s essential quality jumps forth – simple (though not simplistic) brightness, even a straining towards universality of theme in that brightness.

But the second track is really what grabs me – the opening trill contrasts so distinctly with the aria and the builds on the first variation, just before it – it is brimming with enthusiasm, acceleration and excitement, and as this variation gets underway, you grasp intuitively how there could possibly be 29 more of them, and you also hear the implied complexity of the initial aria.  Each successive variation does the same thing – enriches the original.

I also realized something in listening to this so many things that I hadn’t always understood prior – that it would be great to see this music performed.  The streaming music era has spoiled us in some ways.  I imagine you could, right now, without even putting much effort into it, listen to 15 different artists’ recordings of the Goldberg Variations, for free on Spotify no less, and you might then forget that it takes some real work and concentration or a performer to play these pieces, from memory, in one sitting, at full tempo.  As an extremely amateur pianist, I listen to some of these tracks (the quick ones especially) and just wonder how someone could possibly do that.  I can’t even move my fingers that fast with no particular purpose, much less while articulately and distinctly setting forth a melody (or 2 or 3) at the same time.

According to the biography, Gould’s playing technique involved sitting very low with respect to the piano, so that his elbows would often dip beneath the level of the keys.  This removed a bit of the tension from his forearms, allowing a freer range of motion for his fingers across the keys.  The downside of this is there may be less dynamic range (I’ll talk about that with Beethoven in a minute) but there is much be dexterity and agility in the articulation of Bach’s racing canons and counterpoints.  So the tempo at which Gould recorded the variations is then an achievement of technique as much as a stylistic choice.  And since this music doesn’t really have a whole bunch of dynamic range, it doesn’t suffer from the failure to summon up a really enormous fortissimo for which you would need more forearm strength.  Just as arresting as the racing tempo are the abrupt (but controlled) tempo changes, ritardandi that crop up at the end of certain variations that give you the sense of a machine coming to rest in the most human way possible.

Regarding counterpoint – as that was one of Gould’s favorite aspects of music – there was once a moment while listening to one of the quicker variations when I was reminded (this will sound pretentious – I apologize) of Saussere’s distinction between the diachronic (analysis through time) and synchronic (analysis at a single time).  I’d like to be able to listen to these pieces in both ways, since there is so much going on at once (and yet it also retains such a sense of unity).  Another less pretentious way to put it – there are moments in the midst of counterpoint that you feel like a character in The Matrix, twisting your body to avoid a bullet whose speed your mind has been able to momentarily.  You pause to look around at the musical landscape just temporarily as it races past you.  You can never get your head all the way around it, and therein comes the “sense of wonder” I think the cd re-release title may be reaching for.

I had more of an ambition, to learn about all the different musical forms in which these variations are written.  Every few variations is a “canon”, which I guess is a sort of round where a second melody starts one measure after a first one.  Each of these canons’ second melodies takes an incrementally higher starting point.  In the first one, both melodies start on the principal note of the scale (the tonic?); just one measure apart.  In the next one, the first starts on the tonic, and the next one starts a major second higher (two half-steps).  This goes on until the tenth, which is the near the end of the variations.  I think a lot of the pieces are in G major (maybe all the canons?)  There are some in a minor key (is that the related minor key to G minor, which I think is B minor, with 2 sharps?)

I abandoned the ambition to understand the forms Bach was trying to use, or the music theory implied by them, not because I didn’t think such a project would be interesting, but just because I realized I was way beyond my depth. To bring back the analogy of the Baroque church – I know there is a lot going on to make it stand, but I also know that I am not an architect.  I can look on admiringly, and have a powerful intuitive reaction to that structure, but I cannot understand it in anything like the terms in which its creator conceived of it.


When I first heard Gould’s second movement of Sonata 30, just a few days ago, I was completely transfixed; I could not get it out of my head for several hours, and over the course of a day I probably listened to it 6 times.  It may sound ridiculous (it probably is ridiculous in fact) but I contrived ways to fit it into the lesson plans I had for one of my classes – I made them listen to it twice!  It’s only about 2 minutes long but still, this should speak to the way this brief segment grabbed me.

Its first two measures have an immediate familiarity for me – I imagine they might for you too.  I don’t know if that’s because I had heard it before, though I’m sure I had.  It’s just such a burst of thundering chaos, but at the same time under such control, down to the 32nd note ornamentation that surrounds the nugget of the melody.  Something like it repeats twice more through the movement, and each time with such ferocity Gould as plays it that it burrowed itself into my consciousness and wouldn’t let go.  Again, a simple admiration for the technical virtuosity required held me and still does.

I did a little comparison, and since my old iTunes library still exerts some sort of pull (though Spotify sort of means it’s silly even to fuss about) I found a recording by Andreas Schiff.  I don’t know anything about him, but I’ll suppose for the time being it’s a more orthodox take on Beethoven. I listened to Schiff’s versions of the second movement of Sonata #30.  The first thing I noticed was it felt about half as fast.  Listening to it after repeated obsessive listenings to the Gould felt a lot like getting off the highway and thinking you’re inching along when you’re going 30 miles per hour.  Everything seems to take an eternity when you’re exhilarated from the previous speed and energy.

Something Schiff’s recording has, though, that Gould’s doesn’t really, is the heft and gravitas that come from greater willingness to use dynamic range, as well as a willingness to play more slowly.  But another caveat here is it may just be that the Schiff recording is better than the Gould one (there is a 45 or so year gap in recording technology used).  Either way, Schiff’s recording created a greater sense of building drama and seriousness; Gould’s is more of a race to the finish.  Though it’s much more exciting as such.  In some of the movements of the different sonatas, though, there are moments that get a bit muddy – the distinctness so noticeable in the Goldberg Variations somehow doesn’t materialize.  On the other hand – there are unexpected moments of counterpoint I wouldn’t expect to hear in Beethoven, for whom melody always seems more central than Bach.  I’m not sure if that’s Gould, or me looking for it because I know I’m listening to Gould.

My quick take on the Beethoven recording is, Gould’s doing the same thing he did with the Bach – going for fast, clear, non-period-piece preciousness, and emphasizing speed and clarity over dynamic range.  The trouble is (again, this is a totally amateurish and not that thought out generalization): that works better for Bach than Beethoven.

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