JS Bach: Goldberg Variations

Glenn Gould plays the Goldberg Variations

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Glenn Gould (piano) (1955) Sony 88697806062

Given this is now such a historic landmark, it seems strange to recall that executives at Columbia had misgivings about Glenn Gould recording the Goldberg Variations. Just months earlier the director of Columbia’s Masterworks Division, David Oppenheim, had attended the 22-year-old pianist’s New York debut on 11 January 1955, when Gould had played a typically eclectic programme of Gibbons, Berg and Beethoven. Oppenheim was so impressed by Gould’s ‘mesmerising’ performance that he contacted his manager, Walter Homburger, who cannily negotiated a contract in which Gould had artistic freedom of choice what to record.

Gould then proposed to record not any of the works he had played at his New York debut, but an epic set of variations which even the Bach scholar, Albert Schweitzer, had said was ‘impossible to take to at a first hearing’. Columbia executives gently tried to dissuade him. Such was Gould’s enthusiasm for the Goldbergs, though, which he had loved since his teens that Columbia relented. Sessions were arranged for one week in Columbia’s East 30th Street studio.

Even in June weather Gould arrived in winter clothing, armed with several towels, two large bottles of spring water, five different bottles of pills and his own low chair. First warming his hands in a basin of hot water, he proceeded to record a performance of often unprecedented speed yet precision, all the contrapuntal details presented with miraculous clarity. Gould’s international career was launched, and Bach’s music was brought to life for a wide audience.

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