There are moments in history where one can say, without blinking an eye, where one was and what one was doing — Kennedy’s assassination, Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, Michael Jordan’s final shot in game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals against Utah Jazz. For me, the same could be said for Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Sadly, these recordings bookend a life that was incredibly and uniquely prolific, yet too short for those who knew him and certainly for all of us who love his recordings.
For those of you who have never heard of Glenn Gould, I encourage you to watch the fantastic 1993 biographical film by François Girard, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.
And this fantastic documentary, Genius Within — The Inner Life of Glenn Gould.
I’m supposed to be writing about the Goldberg Variations, not about Glenn Gould, but it’s hard to write about one without the other!
I remember that moment so clearly, taking out the cd of Gould’s 1982 final recording from the long skinny cardboard box that cd’s came in at the time. It was April 1988 (32 years ago..weird) and when that first variation burst forth after the Aria, I think I was launched into a different dimension for the remaining 35 minutes of that short and incredible recording.
I’m glad that I heard his final recording first, which was made just weeks before Gould passed away, because his first recording from 1955 is just so dazzling and dizzying in technical brilliance, many people who first heard this simply can’t appreciate the final recording’s ruminative and contemplative qualities.
Both of Gould’s recordings are essential for anyone’s music library, in my opinion.
There are, however, other recordings that have taken me to that special place. In 1993, Andrew Rangell released a recording that caught my attention because of his inventive use of ornamentation and lyrical phrasing.
One can’t really talk about Bach without mentioning the recordings András Schiff. Here is a wonderful video of him performing the variations at the 2015 BBC Proms.
Also, it’s important to note that the piano hadn’t been invented while Bach was alive. It was the harpsichord that would’ve been used. Here is a fantastic performance on harpsichord by the French harpsichordist, Pierre Hantaï.
Here is another wonderful recording on harpsichord by my friend, Jory Vinikour.
I leave you with my current Goldberg Variations crush, Beatrice Rana’s masterful 2017 recording. I think she plays with the introspection and perception of Gould with the playful ornamentation of Rangell. It has it all.