J.S. Bach

Recommended (or not) Recordings

Goldberg Variations

Main Performer
or Conductor:
Glenn Gould
Individual Works:The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Format:Compact Disc
Record Label:CBS Masterworks
Catalog Number:MK 37779
Year Released/Recorded:1982
Comments:David Dodd said:

Gould's second recording of the piece, one of the final recordings of his life, sounded an elegant and somewhat spooky coda, as he recapitulated his groundbreaking 1956 performance.

Miranda Clark said:

Glenn Gould takes all of his years of practice and talent and pours them all into this absolutely fabulous mature recording. Its worth a listen!

Jan Hanford said:

I can understand how Glenn Gould took the world by storm with his 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations. It was a starved musical community that heard his first interpretation and it must have been exciting. However, this 1981 re-interpretation is embarrassing.

This is one of the ugliest performances I've ever heard of anything anywhere. His harsh and loud playing (while humming along) creates a performance devoid of expression or nuance. Worse, he not only hums, he sings along nearly the entire time like some kind victim of Torette's Syndrome.

I think the worship of Glenn Gould is, in part, the need for some people to champion experimentation and to dismiss "the old" in favour of the "the new." To many people it doesn't matter if it's good as long as it's different. I do not share this view. My ears and my heart tell me whether a performance has touched them. This one did not.

Lastly, Columbia put the whole recording on 1 track on the cd, rather than making each variation a separate track number. You put it on and are expected to sit and listen all the way through. So, unless you know how to read music and happen to have the score handy, which most listeners do not, you have to guess which variation he is playing (or singing) at any particular time. However, this is a minor detail since I consider this cd to be unlistenable and to be avoided.

Fernando Peral said:

It is an undeniably superb version of this work; it takes all the experience and "maestria" of an interpreter like Gould to transform such an elaborated music, whose interpretation is only allowed to a first class virtuoso, into something easy to listen. Gould even helps transmit the spirit of the work with his characteristic display of grumblings, though some people may dislike precisely that. Anyway, I'm absolutely enthusiastic about this version. To all purists in music, I can only say: try it at least once before rejecting it! Most of you won't regret it, and some may even learn from it.

Doug Cameron said:

If you buy this CD, prepare to hear a lot of pompous humming. To me, it is absolutely incredible that a record company would release a classical CD with all this humming dumped over the top of the music. Does this truly not bother other people ? To me, it was unlistenable after a couple minutes.

If you are a member of the Glenn Gould Personality Cult, though, hey, its your money.

Luke Hasson said:

Put simply, this cd stinks. Not only is the sing-a-long distracting and absurd, but he pounds on the piano at a ridiculous speed. This isn't music, it's a Gould ego-fest that belongs in the discount bin. Or better yet, the trash bin. All the fanatics who love him must be as medicated as he was. Get over it.

Mikko Taylor said:

This has great contrast from Gould's 1955 recording, and is unlike any other performance of the Goldberg Variations that I've heard. Rather than treating it as 32 separate works, Gould molds them into one, with a common tempo throughout. This, even if the listener doesn't like it, makes for a fascinating experiment.
In going about it this way, Gould ends up with some rather eccentric tempi, especially in the Aria & Aria DC.

The tempi are generally eccentric in how slow they are. Under less capable hands than Gould's, it would sound mechanical. However, Gould does a similar thing as he did in his famous Brahms d-minor concerto incident (at a concert in NY) and on many other occasions, and brings out a different side of the piece altogether. He does this in many of his performances, often so flawlessly that one would see it as the "normal" way!

Gould himself, at an early age, noticed that his playing suffered when he didn't hum/sing, so that is something anyone listening to Gould must adjust to. As for one's tolerance of this fact, it varies from person to person. If you're easily irritated by extraneous noises, then don't listen to the recording! I, personally, am not. Many great pianists, including Andre Watts and Grigory Sokolov, hum while they play. I've heard it at their concerts. Gould's is just quite a bit louder than average.
Gould has proven himself to be a master when playing contrapuntal music (or, more accurately, of bringing out all the counterpoint of the music he plays, whether necessary or not), and this recording is no exception. Most of the work is quite simple counterpoint anyway. Any exceptions, though, he handles with his usual capability.

I admit that this recording is by no means for everyone. If you're learning to play the Goldberg Variations and/or you want to hear "how they ought to be done," do look elsewhere before you listen to this. If you don't like extraneous noises to invade your listening experience, look elsewhere. The same goes if you don't like eccentric interpretations, or if you don't like Glenn Gould. (This recording, in some way, really brings out Glenn Gould the person, not just Glenn Gould the pianist, I think.)

As for my opinion, I feel that this is the best performance of the Goldberg Variations I've ever heard. This is the one recording of ANYTHING that I own that I could never get sick of (and I generally keep particular recordings playing continuously for weeks at a time). In short, approach this recording with caution. You may love it, but it's only for certain people.

Acknowledgements:Thank you to the following for submitting this recording and for your comments:
  • David Dodd
  • Luke Hasson
  • Miranda Clark
  • Fernando Peral
  • Doug Cameron
  • Mikko Taylor
And from the collection of Jan Hanford.
Date First Submitted:03/20/1999