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Vintage Gould: Earlier Or Later?

Posted by acdtest on October 9, 2002

Vintage Gould: Earlier Or Later?

ovely Weekend Guest, a first-rate pianist and knowledgeable lover of Bach’s keyboard works (she often refers to them by BWV number, for instance) spent part of her last weekend evening here in a friendly but, um, animated discussion with me of Glenn Gould’s 1955 and 1981 recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (or BWV 988 as LWG calls it just to piss me off). On the whole, I rather prefer the earlier reading, she the later. The readings, both of them, are, of course, genuine marvels, and display in equal measure Gould’s trademark, irreproducible, and nonpareil performance technique — the preternatural delineation of multiple contrapuntal lines; the uncanny rhythmic sense, perfectly precise but infinitely plastic; and the equally precise and plastic articulation which commentators and critics insist on referring to as détaché, but which is rather a near-perfect pianistic analogue of the highly prized and near-impossible harpsichord legato — but are otherwise world’s apart in spirit.

Rambunctious, LWG calls the earlier reading. Staid, I call the later, but only half mean it, using the term largely for reasons of symmetry with her rambunctious. About the only interpretive point on which we agree is that both Gould readings of this without-equal crown jewel of the Baroque keyboard repertoire blow away all other readings, truly excellent though some are.

I’ve had the recordings of both readings in my library almost since the day of their releases (both of which recordings survived the catastrophe that consumed most of the rest of my libraries several years ago), and though I listen to them often, I never really made the effort to nail down exactly why I preferred the one reading over the other. Better late than never, I decide, and so use the previous evening’s discussion with LWG as a spur.

Leaving aside the aria and aria da capo which, respectively, open and close the set of variations (I leave them aside mostly because I suspect I’m missing something important concerning them in the later reading as I simply cannot contrive a reasonable aesthetic, musical, or emotional justification for the funereal, almost structure-destroying tempi taken for them by Gould in this reading), I always vaguely imagined it was the generally slower — at times significantly slower — tempi of the later reading (i.e., slower as compared with the earlier reading) that provoked my antipathy for, even annoyance with, that reading. But I now see that’s not it. Something else. And that something else is, I think, most clearly exemplified in Gould’s two readings of Variation 25; an astonishing piece of music that enters the set of variations like some alien presence, and at its departure leaves one slack-jawed with amazement and wonder.

With its mind-boggling modulations and implied enharmonic shifts, Variation 25’s chromaticism is so extreme it makes the music of Tristan and Parsifal seem positively diatonic by comparison. Gould, in his liner notes for the 1955 release, refers to this variation in his typically provocative way as a “Chopinesque mood-piece,” and elsewhere as a “Romantic effusion.” It’s neither of these, of course, but thoroughly and essentially Bachian throughout. It’s simply that it appears to not belong to this set of variations, but oddly — and magically — still remains one with them while at the same time seeming to inhabit another world altogether.

In his earlier reading, Gould captures this other-world quality to perfection, largely by his circumspect and strategic use of rubati, a musical device more appropriate to Chopin and the Romantics than to Bach, but here used to brilliant effect. This variation is one of the few where the tempo of the earlier reading is taken slower overall than the later (but only marginally so; 6’28” vs. 6’03”; a mere 6% difference in timings). The confluence of the marginally slower overall tempo and the strategic use of rubati, however, makes the melodic and harmonic lines of this earlier reading seem to play out on a scale cosmically slow, their internal pulse seemingly proceeding as do the slow wheeling of galaxies through infinite eons of boundless space, the lines’ modulations and implied enharmonic shifts, given point by the rubati, all the while suggesting tonalities mystically strange and vastly remote.

As I said, music that leaves one slack-jawed with amazement and wonder.

In the earlier reading this is unmistakable. In the later reading the rubati, while still present to some extent, are largely emasculated, the internal pace and inflection of the melodic and harmonic lines spun out in deliberately and soberly considered fashion, the variation seeming to belong more at home with the set of variations than in the earlier reading because more metrically and sensibly proportional to them. The mind-boggling modulations and implied enharmonic shifts are still there, of course, and still give this variation the sense of a vaguely alien presence within the set of variations, but the other-world magic of the earlier reading has gone missing. Gould’s deliberate and sober approach to the music bars such mysteries. One’s amazement at the music’s harmonic boldness remains, but the wonder has fled.

This stately, deliberate sobriety characterizes most (but not all) of Gould’s later reading of the Goldberg; a sobriety achieved by various musical means, one of which is Gould’s singling out of an inner contrapuntal voice (typically, the unifying element of the aria’s bass line) as if to say, “See? Here it is.” The device is somewhat reminiscent of that used in those idiot “Konzept” opera productions where the self-involved director insists on repeatedly hitting the audience over the head with his particular “vision” lest they miss it. It’s a device as annoying here as it is there.

The sheer audacity — the “rambunctious[ness]” — of Gould’s earlier reading may be considered by some a mark against it, but for me it’s that very audacity that gives revelatory life to that earlier reading, while the deliberately sober later reading largely (but, again, not entirely) eschews audacity as if to act as corrective for the implied youthful excesses of the earlier. While the later reading may achieve its end in that respect, it does so at a cost, and to my way of thinking, the price is simply too high.

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