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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 3, No. 1

Bach's Goldberg Variations: A Brief Recording History

by Morley Davidson / September 1, 1997

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It is difficult to name a well-known harpsichordist or a Bach-specialist pianist who has not recorded Bach's Aria with diverse variations BWV 988, popularly known as The Goldberg Variations. Many careers have been launched by recordings of the Goldberg Variations, as few other keyboard works allow the display of such a wide range of interpretive and technical skills.

Perhaps the most historically important recording of the Goldberg Variations was made in Paris in November 1933 by the great Wanda Landowska - on the harpsichord, of course. Her recording (now available on EMI References CDH 7610082 and Pearl GEMM 9265) was a limited "Society" edition, since the work was generally known only among music scholars; nevertheless it aroused considerable interest among the wider public when it appeared. Ten years later, after fleeing Europe during World War II, she chose the Goldberg Variations for her American debut recording. As expected, it immediately established Landowska's reputation in the United States. Coincidentally the young Chilean Claudio Arrau had just finished his own Goldberg Variations recording for RCA. Today Arrau is perhaps best known for his recording of Chopin's Nocturnes and is not really thought of as a Bach interpreter, but early in his career Arrau had established himself as one of the top Bach pianists. He was the first to play Bach's complete keyboard works, a feat he achieved during 12 Berlin recitals in 1935. The Goldberg Variations was one of his first recordings following the February 1941 Carnegie Hall triumph which laid the foundation of his American fame. Remarkably, this recording was not produced and released until 1988. Arrau did not urge the release apparently because he was hesitant at the time as to whether Bach should be played on the piano or the harpsichord. He also held Landowska's playing in very high regard -- thus when he was asked by RCA if he would permit her recording to be released instead of his, he kindly agreed.

Undoubtedly the most famous of all recordings of the Goldberg Variations, or of any Bach keyboard work for that matter, is Glenn Gould's 1955 debut (Sony SMK 52594). The technical display is otherworldly. The Gould camp is split as to whether Gould's 1955 recording is better than his more mathematical re-appraisal of the work recorded in 1981, shortly before his death (Sony MK 37779). Many keyboardists prefer the 1955 recording for its sheer technique, while the 1981 release is generally considered more mature and colorful. Luckily for Gould enthusiasts, the 1981 recording was filmed. No popular movie (recall 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould) could ever hope to portray Gould's intensity as he himself does! Andras Schiff's video performance for Teldec suffers by comparison with Gould: the camera angles are much less revealing and the video offers little advantage over the audio recording. There exist two other Glenn Gould recordings of the Goldberg Variations: a live 1954 CBC radio recording (recently transferred from acetate tapes and now available on CBC PSCD 2007) and his 1959 Salzburg recording. The first makes a good trivia question since most Gould buffs believe that his 1955 Goldberg Variations recording was his first. The 1959 "live in concert" recording is a rarity according to Gould himself, in that the interpretation came together so perfectly in front of an audience, which was not Gould's ideal performance setting.

Unlike The Art of the Fugue the Goldberg Variations, which first appeared as Part IV of Bach's Clavier-Őbung, was clearly intended be played on a two-manual harpsichord. The Variations, perhaps even more often than the Art of the Fugue, has been transcribed for a variety of instrumental combinations. Aside from the obvious instrumental transcriptions, such as those for piano (one or two manuals) and organ, there are transcriptions and recordings for string trio, orchestra, two pianos, electronic synthesizer, and even the accordion. The accordion recording by Stefan Hussong is actually not a transcription but an accurate playing of each note, and is quite virtuosic indeed! On a recording called "The Chess Game", John and Mirjana Lewis play each variation on the harpsichord followed by a jazz improvisation on the piano. Finally, in the realm of cyberspace there are several versions in MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) which may be downloaded, permitting the editing of the music and instrumentation to one's own tastes. Considering his enthusiasm for technology, Glenn Gould would probably have been amused by the listeners' ability to alter music by computer in the comfort of their own homes.

Morley Davidson, Asst. Professor, Department of Mathematics, Kent State University, has one of the largest collections of recordings of the Goldberg Variations.

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