Top Five Glenn Gould Bach Recordings

Glenn Gould recorded more than sixty records, and while the majority of them may not be Bach, the plurality certainly are.  And though many of the rest of the records are a joy to listen to, the greatest joy for me always comes from the Bach.  The liner notes on numerous Gould-Bach records repeat a quote from an early critic: Gould plays Bach “as if he were one of the pupils of the Thomasschule cantor [i.e., Bach himself]… The music seems to speak through his playing.”  As cliche as such a comment sounds, it’s really onto something.  The time I’ve most noticed this singing (as opposed to Gould’s literal singing, which is often going on in the background) is on the concertos (see below).

I hope a little poetic license will be excused but look at the picture below these words: there is a joy and wonderment you can see in Gould’s face, one that you hear in the music most often when he’s playing Bach.  Considering Gould spent a lot of his life wracked with anxiety and depression, it makes sense these Bach recordings are so great – it’s almost as though he was fighting back his own darkness and struggle as he made them.

Just as Gould is probably better at playing Bach than other composers, so Gould is also better at playing Bach than other performers are at playing Bach.  I’ve seen Bach performed live a couple of different times – once it was Angela Hewitt, playing the French Suites, and another time Emmauel Ax playing the Partitas.  Both of those performances were obviously professional, spirited, etc., but having listened to the Gould recordings so many times, Hewitt’s and Ax’s performances just fell flat for me.  For one thing, they sounded laborously, draggingly SLOW.  Listening to Gould play Bach, and then someone else play Bach feels like going 75 on a scenic highway and then abruptly pulling off to a clogged stoplight on a suburban arterial road.  Everyone else just feels like they’re going through the motions; Gould seems to live the music in a quite striking way.

In other words, if you’re looking for an entry point into classical music, or into Glenn Gould, or both – his Bach recordings are a great place to start.

One caveat however – Bach is complicated, and can sound very samey the first time you listen to it.  There is actually infinite variety lying just beneath the surface, but you will not detect it right away (unless you are a music-listening genius).  So give these recordings some chances.  I know a lot of classical music fans even feel comfortable saying “I don’t care for Bach.”  It’s a prejudice many feel okay with (including the woman who shoved her way past me while Emmanuel Ax was playing an encore after having just completed the 6 partitas (it took like 2.5 hours, to be fair) – she proudly told us “I have had enough Bach for one day!”).

Anyway, my top five Gould/Bach recordings, with accompanying youtube links:

1.  The Six Partitas/Italian Concerto – Again, there’s some cheating here.  Each partita is a suite of 5-8 short pieces, each imitating dance forms of Bach’s era, and the Italian concerto ostensibly has nothing to do with the partitas.  I’ve included the Italian concerto because on the original LP release, it’s included as a bonus along with Partitas 1 and 2.  Each partita has a distinctive mood: #1 – simple/sincere, #2 – melodramatic, #3 – devious, exotic, #4 stately, ornate, #5 – playful, #6 introspective.  I prefer the minor key partitas (which are 2,  3, and 6).

The Partitas represent a convergence of technical acumen and lyricism, both for Bach and for Gould.  There are other 13 suites – French, English, and the “Overture in the French Style”.  The French focus on simple lyricism, the English upon technical complexity (and though they did not make this list, are certainly worth listening to).  The partitas meld these two aspects into the most satisfying overall Bach performance.  Intense, focused listening to these is certainly necessary – when I first blogged about them, I said I couldn’t see any differences among them.   Now I can, and these are the records I come back to the most.

2.  Clavier Concertos (link is to No. 1 in D Minor) – There are 7 of these, but I think Gould didn’t record #6 (unless this is one of those things were #6 doesn’t exist).  Again, I prefer the minor key ones, which are 1 and 5.  The strings in the background help actually to accent the precision with which Gould executes all sorts of 16th note figuration.  What these recordings capture the most is the uncanny ability Gould had to articulate every note within a complex run, and somehow capture each moment of counterpoint without running any note together, even at tremendous speed, all the while allowing the notes to ring with great sonority.  Gould was known for performing in a strange position, hunched all the way over, level with the piano, and also known for insisting on a strange kind of piano tuning that muted the action but allowed it to be struck with a minimum of force.  On these concertos you can hear the success of this unorthodox method most clearly.

3.  Goldberg Variations – You’d think this would have been #1… it’s the recording Gould’s best known for.  His 1955 debut is among the best-selling classical records of all time, and also finds admirers across the spectrum.  It turns up in movies, television, randomly alluded to in other books – it is a phenomenon as much as a recording.  There is a life-affirming something that makes you sit up and listen the first time you hear that 1955 recording.  It races to and fro, rarely ceasing in its drive through all 30 variations, bookended by two performances of the aria.  This extended suite resembles an enormous, complicated baroque cathedral, with far too many complexities to be tracked by one listener at one time.  But there is also an overall coherence that is breathtaking at moments.  There is also the 1981 recording – one of Gould’s last, which is far slower, and more penetrating for it, though it may set aside some of the spontaneous joy one finds in the 1955 version.

4.  French Suites 1 -3, 4-6/Overture in the French Style – Like I said above, the partitas are the best of the suites, but these nice as well.  They’re not technically challenging (at least not for professionals – I couldn’t even hack my way through the first page) but they are still a delight to behold.  Some of the best moments come later into the suites – in simple A-B-A minuets like that in the third suite – this one starts to sound almost like something you’d hear in synth-focused rock .  The “Overture” is actually an overture and also successive movements (the link above is only to the overture itself).

5.  Art of the Fugue – This is the only professional recording Gould ever made on an organ.  This is odd and unfortunate, since his earliest training was on organ, and a lot of criticism can be resolved by seeing that most of his keyboard work is played as though on an organ – there is less dynamic work, phrasing, and more precision and counterpoint than what many audiences expect out of the piano.  Anyway, this recording is haunting and ethereal, often involving four voices at once (i.e., two hands and two feet).  The Art of the Fugue is one of the last things Bach himself wrote, and actually serious people have argued over its numerological significance (Gould was not one of those people, and he’s got an amusing essay making fun of it).



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