Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Sony Legacy
WORKS: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
PERFORMER: Glenn Gould (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: SM3K 87703 ADD mono/stereo Reissue (1955, 1981)
Little can be added to all the critical accolades heaped upon Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, be it the pianist’s landmark 1955 disc debut or his similarly individual, though strikingly different 1981 remake. Both recordings remain catalogue cornerstones, having been repackaged and remastered a number of times. They are done so again to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Gould’s death and what would have been his 70th birthday.

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When the 1981 Goldberg first came out in September 1982 (just days before Gould died), it was marketed as an expensive audiophile product on account of its digital provenance. How ironic that the present reissue stems from a newly discovered analogue master tape, whose ‘warmer’ sound allegedly improves upon the limitations of early digital technology. Blind comparative listening on first-rate equipment, however, revealed Sony’s 20-bit Glenn Gould Edition transfer a little more defined in note attacks, while this rounder, mellower analogue transfer slightly compromised the characteristic ‘ping’ of Gould’s tone.

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By contrast, the 1955 Goldberg receives its clearest and cleanest transfer to date. A bonus disc contains unreleased alternate takes from these sessions, revealing a slower, arguably more compelling rendition of the Aria, and a sequence in which Gould demonstrates, to harmonically stunning effect, how one can contrapuntally combine the British and American national anthems. There is also a fascinating (albeit entirely pre-scripted) interview between Gould and writer Tim Page, in which the pianist discusses his theory of tempo relationships, Bach on the piano and other pertinent issues. While notable more recent Goldbergs from Murray Perahia (Sony) and András Schiff (Decca) offer all the repeats and more adventurous ornamentation, their virtues can never overshadow Gould’s classic recordings. Jed Distler