On the occasion of J.S. Bach's birthday, I share the opening--the Aria-- for what has become my favorite piece of music, the Goldberg Variations, in my favorite version, the 1981 recording by Glenn Gould.
A local classical music station played some of the variations today to mark Bach's birthday. The announcer repeated the standard story (sometimes disputed) that Bach wrote it as a commission by a nobleman who couldn't sleep--it was to be played by his private keyboardist, a 14 year old boy named Goldberg, who was also Bach's pupil. It was supposed to promote sleep yet be lively enough to offer solace if sleep didn't come.
Though I was first inspired to listen to it by Richard Powers' description of it in his novel The Goldbug Variations, I too attempted to use it in this legendary way, and listened to it so many nights in succession that it was no longer necessary for me to turn on my mp3 player, I could just play it in my head. Since then I've scaled back, but I still listen to it in part or all of it pretty often. And still find new moments in it.
Some years back the NY Times or somebody asked a bunch of classical music people their opinion on the best classical recording. Several named Gould's Goldberg's Variations, though they were split on which version--his first recording in 1955 or his second in 1981 (they were his first and last recordings of anything.)
Both are somewhat controversial, but the 1981 probably more so. The most obvious difference is the Aria--it is slower in 1981, but that only begins to describe the difference. The difference is a revelation, and speaks to me of time, melancholy and acceptance, and savoring the moments of life's beauty.
I know a pianist who disdains both Gould versions. On the other hand there are people like me, not classically educated or employed, who are devoted to Gould's piano performances, and specifically to one or the other of the Goldberg Variations he recorded.
I knew the radio station was going to play the Goldberg Variations so I made sure to tune in, hoping they would play a version I hadn't heard. It's said that before Gould it didn't seem possible for one pianist to play the Variations (it is astonishing to try to follow what two hands are doing--it sounds impossible) but since then, many pianists have recorded them.
But the version the station chose wasn't a piano (or a harpsichord, the keyboard for which it was written) but a transcription for strings. There are several of these--I have two--and they seem to emphasize the lyrical quality of the 1981 Aria.
But Gould's playing--especially on parts of the Goldberg--has also always reminded me of jazz. Gould apparently thought of some of his playing as approaching jazz, and it seems that way to me. So I also have a jazz version of the Goldberg by the Jacques Loussier Trio. And like it a lot too. I could well be wrong, but I don't think either the string version or the jazz version would exist
The above clip is from a video recording of Gould playing the 1981 version in the recording studio. The whole performance is also on YouTube, but I have it on disk. It's a remarkable thing to watch. Gould was a handsome young man in 1955 but in 1981 he was just a few years from the end. In this video he looks apish, not at all capable of making the sounds he is in fact making. Add to his appearance his eccentricities--strange posture and approach of his hands to the keyboard--and it is not really easy to watch. Until the camera lingers on his hands as he plays, and then it's mesmerizing.
The Aria has become somewhat familiar from movies and television shows, but in total it is for me a great 3 minute piece in itself, and I offer it to cyberspace in the hope of introducing it to enhance someone else's life. Paying it forward.