That was no mistake, that was the last word Appreciation: Glenn Gould's 1955 "Goldberg Variations" set the pianistic standard, but his '81 version reaches beyond standards.


I have always traveled light in summers, taking with me to our vacation home the minimum of possessions: an extra pair of eye glasses, whatever books I am reading and, of course, my CD of Glenn Gould's 1955 performance of the "Goldberg Variations."

This latter item, since it cannot go unplayed for more than a day or two, I generally carry to the car like a life-support device. This year, I inadvertently took with me not Gould's celebrated world standard of the "Variations," but his surprise 1981 re-recording, done only a year before his death at age 50.

I discovered my mistake when, one evening before dinner, I played the '81 recording. As it had the few other times I had tried it, the recording struck me like a gratuitous moving of familiar furniture. So firmly emblazoned in my mind were the precise and comprehending phrasings of the '55 that each deviation shrieked of heresy. How dare Gould, of all people, toy with what the entire musical world regarded as artistic perfection?

But for my addiction, I would not have played Gould's "Variations" again last summer. Yet, when I awoke one night and couldn't go back to sleep, I gave the '81 another shot.

This time it was different. In the opening variation, Gould seemed, as before, to be playing torturously slowly. (He played it for 3 minutes and 5 seconds in '81 as compared with 1 minute and 50 seconds in '55.) This time, however, what I had previously taken as an almost mocking hesitation did not sound that way. Instead, in solitude in the enveloping darkness -- something Gould profoundly appreciated -- I heard another message in Gould's opening tempo. This time he was saying: "Listen, I am about to tell you something important."

And in the next 51 minutes he did just that.

For the rest of the summer, in dozens of playings, my affection for the '81 recording grew. When one gets to know it, the '81 adds something all but indescribable to Gould's unparalleled technical mastery in the '55.

According to Gould's biographers, he saw life as an exploratory journey. Gould was taken with what the future might hold and the possibilities technology presented. He particularly liked open-ended possibilities, ill-defined nocturnal telephonic friendships, long periods of isolation, and exploring musical ideas at his parents' wilderness cabin. One must reconcile Gould's re-recording of the "Variations" with his grappling with incompleteness.

It is also necessary to reconcile Gould's '81 re-recording with the fact he was a perfectionist, so much so that he exhausted himself reworking the briefest of passages.

Gould believed recordings are the indelible expression of musical artists. One of his relentless criticisms of the concert stage, which he abandoned in 1964, was its "no take two-ness," by which he meant the inability to repeat passages to perfection. This insistence could never square with his casual return to CBS' 30th Street Recording Studios to re-record the music that had catapulted him to his status as an artistic and intellectual icon almost 27 years before.

Gould's abbreviated explanation for the re-recording -- he ascribed it to new technology and a re-examination of the "arithmetical correspondence between theme and variation" -- is perhaps true, but surely less than the whole story. It's not possible that a man so consumed with unfulfilled possibilities, so insistent on expressing himself flawlessly, could do something so irregular -- except to further a deeply held motivation.

Gould's 1955 recording is a part of classical music folklore. He was an off-the-wall eccentric -- with his myriad pills and tonics, bowls of water for dipping his fingers, inappropriate clothing, crazed expression and stool that his father made for him, which held his arms below the keyboard. Since he didn't come from Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union but from Toronto, of all places, Gould's eccentricities could not be ascribed to cultural incongruities.

His insistence that he perform for his first recording the incredibly intricate exercises Bach wrote for his prize student did not help matters. Many of the people involved feared his performance of the "Variations" would suffer by comparison with the celebrated recording of Wanda Landowska. Anything less than unquestioned technical mastery would surely have bought Gould a quick trip back up north.

As it turned out, the complexity and interpretive possibilities of the "Variations" enabled Gould to make instantly clear that he was not simply another brilliant pianist, but a unique musician of unparalleled scope.

If the circumstances surrounding Gould's '55 recording were confining, those surrounding his '81 re-recording were the opposite.

For over a quarter-century Gould's Bach had been the world standard. He had also achieved great successes in performing works by composers as diverse as Schoenberg and Beethoven. His writings and predictions for the future were part of his iconography. In 1955, Gould had everything to gain or lose; in 1981, he had virtually nothing to gain or lose.

My belief is that Gould re-recorded the "Goldberg Variations" because of his conviction that he would shortly die and his concern that he had left something unsaid in the '55 recording. As John Steinbeck did when he returned in "Sweet Thursday" to "Cannery Row" at the end of his literary career, Gould returned to add to his legacy a statement about his deepest aspiration for his art.

Otto Friedrich, Gould's most extensive biographer, may have uncovered the most revealing evidence in this regard: "Gould's remark upon reviewing the '55 recording a few days before going to New York to make the '81 that he could not recognize, or identify with, the spirit of the person who made [the '55 recording]."

Gould's known qualities, his insistence that the work of an artist be informed with purpose, and the two recordings themselves, support the hypothesis that Gould made the '81 recording to clarify the "spirit" he found missing in the '55.

Well before 1981, Gould had staked out his terrain as an "essentially dispassionate" pianist. The "Goldberg Variations" are well-suited to this. But, in the '81 recording, Gould is the wide-eyed child.

The '81 recording is different from the '55 in its ebullience, its unrestrained passion for the fullness and vitality of Bach. The raison d'etre of the '81 is best explained as Gould's artistic confirmation that what is first about music -- and by extension life, since music was the center of Gould's life -- is to love it, to imbibe and celebrate its beauty and infinite possibilities.

Few artists have so thoroughly mastered the technical demands of Bach's music that they can transcend them and experience freedom within so tight a structure. When this occurs, what follows is an epiphany in which music, artist and listener are lifted beyond what any organization of notes and tempos, however brilliant, can offer. The musician and the instrument cease to exist as separate. They become one unified participant, as Denny Dutton put it in his essay in "Variations," a collection of writings dedicated to Gould by his friends and admirers after his death; they become a state of "ecstasy" in which "The performer goes beyond himself, beyond his technique, beyond the mechanical means of producing the performance, to attain a sublime, integrated view of the musical work of art."

More than any other Bach keyboard artist, Glenn Gould was able to do this.

Hearing Gould play the "Variations," you can see clearly what he meant in his writings by a music that could rise above "hierarchical" implications and bring artist and listener together.

I believe this is the meaning and purpose of Glenn Gould's 1981 re-recording of the "Goldberg Variations."

Late in the summer, I was sitting on the porch with friends after dinner. One is a chorus teacher who has formal music training and wide listening experience. At some point the conversation turned to Gould, and I cautiously introduced the '81 recording and guardedly suggested my appreciation of it. Almost instantly my friend said, "I like the '81 recording better."

My embarrassment at not having spoken candidly before his implied permission still haunts me. In my mind, but not out loud, I said, "Me, too!"

Jim Kramon is a Baltimore attorney.

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