Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988; Preludes and Fugues, BWV 883, 876, 891 & 878

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WORKS: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988; Preludes and Fugues, BWV 883, 876, 891 & 878
PERFORMER: Glenn Gould (piano)
At best, these are a curate’s egg, of interest to obsessional admirers of the brilliant and eccentric Canadian pianist who gave up playing in public in 1964 and died in 1982, barely more than a week after he had turned fifty.


Glenn Gould created a sensation with his first official recording of the Goldberg Variations in 1955, which was also the year of his New York recital debut. The version issued here for the first time was taken from a Canadian broadcast the previous year and the interpretation is quite different. There are no repeats at all; the theme is slow and sentimentalised; the first two canons are treated to conventional rubato, while the remaining canons have none; Variation 29 is very fast, like a mad pianola. Gould kept changing his interpretation, as no fewer than three later recordings prove, but since this one has a lot of shellac sizzle as well as distortion, it’s strictly for the archives.

The Preludes and Fugues from the ‘48’ are also taken from broadcasts in the early Fifties and they’re similarly poor in sound. The fugues are played with great clarity and quite strictly, while the two Preludes in minor keys are rhythmically pulled about, with heavy Romantic expression.


Gould also recorded all the pieces by Schoenberg and his pupils at later dates. Here, Webern’s Variations and Schoenberg’s Op. 11 were recorded privately at an early self-promoted recital, and the sound is very poor. At least it doesn’t suffer from the crosstalk of the early broadcasts of Schoenberg’s Concerto – a fine performance, as far as can be judged with the orchestra sounding so distant – and Suite, Op. 25. Perhaps the most interesting playing is Gould’s unusually bold, pianistic view of Berg’s Sonata. Adrian Jack