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This Day in Music History - June 21st 1954

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This day in my family history: My brother was born at 10 minutes past 10 PM on June 21st 1954, making him 57 years old, and me fifty. !

Related Thread: Goldberg Variations - Who - Glenn Gould?

On June 21st, 1954, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ran an “extended” version of its marquee radio series Distinguished Artists. Usually a 30-minute program, this installment was exceptionally extended to 45 minutes because its featured artist needed the extra time.

The work was Bach’s Goldberg Variations
The “Distinguished Artist” was a 21-year old pianist by the name of Glenn Gould.

The mention of Glenn Gould conjures up three words in my mind: “genius”, “eccentric” and “Bach”. Love him or hate him, Glenn Gould does not leave anybody sitting on the fence; you cannot be indifferent when it comes to his performances. A gifted musician, with astonishing dexterity and a great sense of interpretation, he treated us to a (short) concert pianist career, and then transitioned it to the field of broadcasting and exclusive, relentless, studio work.

Why is it that we cannot be indifferent to Gould? I think Leonard Bernstein said it best on the notorious evening of April 6, 1962:

- Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it, too.
- There are moments in Mr. Gould's performance that emerge with astonishing freshness and conviction [and] we can all learn something from this extraordinary artist, who is a thinking performer; [exemplifying] what Dimitri Mitropoulos used to call "the sportive element", that factor of curiosity, adventure, experiment […]
In my experience. some things he does you will agree with, others not so much. To illustrate, I own his recording of Mozart’s K. 331 sonata (the “Turkish rondo” sonata) and I must say that it left me way past perplexed. Maybe we are accustomed to hearing that work performed by the likes of Clara Haskil, who presents it with such flair and lilt whereas Gould approached it “clinically”, the way I would expect a brain surgeon to approach removing a tumor – skillful yes, but calculated, exacting and not letting emotion take over the task at hand. It makes for a musical curiosity, and not for a “keeper” performance.

But then again, maybe Gould apologists will probably disagree and call it a thinking man’s version of the K. 331 sonata. Chacun à son goût, I guess.

All eccentricities aside, Gould made Bach his life’s work, recording all of Bach’s keyboard works, all of his keyboard concerti, and even dabbled on some of his organ works for CBS/Columbia in the 25-year period between 1955 and 1980.

His approach to Bach allowed him to showcase his remarkable piano technique, and indulge in some of the more controversial interpretations of Bach’s works – and doing so on a modern piano rather than on a harpsichord, shunning the “authentic” movement that was starting to gain acceptance by the time of his untimely death in 1982.

And no single work would be associated with one artist in the way that Gould and the Goldberg Variations have been associated. The Goldbergs were perfect bookends to his career – his debut recording and the last recording issued before his death (though a few more trickled out posthumously). His public performances of the work during the five-year period between his Toronto debut of the work in 1954 and his Salzburg performance in 1959 are countless. Shortly after retiring from the concert stage in 1964, he was featured playing some of the Goldberg variations on television and agreed to re-visit the work for the new medium of “digital recording” in 1981, in the very same studio where he committed his first recording some 26 years earlier.

(CBC Television "Festival", 3 June 1964)

Hard to believe today, but prior to his debut recording in 1955, there only was one recording of the work, dating 1933 by harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. Since Gould, the discography and variety of interpretations have exploded – some of them more mainstream, maybe - have gotten the favor of Bach aficionados.

The site bach-cantatas provides the Gould discography of the work, which counts four “authorized” versions: ( ), presented here based on their chronology of recording
  • CBC Broadcast of June 21st, 1954 - Air checks of the earliest Glenn Gould broadcasts on CBC Radio were recorded on 16-inch transcription discs. These acetate air checks were restored and issued by CBC Records in the late 1990’s under their “Perspectives” series (Read I personally heard the restored recording on CBC radio once or twice, and when the CBC turned 50 in 1986 in its original form as part of a year-long series of historic re-broadcasts.
  • Columbia Monaural Studio Recording of June 10-16, 1955 – this is the recording that launched Gould's career as an international pianist, and became one of the most well-known piano recordings. Sales were "astonishing" for a classical album: it was reported to have sold 40,000 copies by 1960, and had sold more than 100,000 by the time of Gould's death in 1982. Glenn Gould’s liner notes provide a great deal of insight on how he conceived his interpretation:
  • Salzburg Festival performance of August 25th, 1959 – This stereophonic recording of the variations was released by CBS posthumously. The recording calls it the “First Authorized Release”, suggesting to me there must have been bootlegs going around for almost 40 years… 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 setting.
  • CBS Digital Studio Recording of April –May, 1981 – Gould revisited the variations “his way”. The recording dates (April 22-25 & May 15, 19 & 29) suggest Gould spent more time in the studio then in 1955, and probably even more time in post-production of this personal, introspective, version of the work. This is Gould at his most eccentric, mumblings and all. The tempi are slower, the musical treatment more refined, closer (I imagine) to the performance of Bach’s insomniac patron. 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, there is a video capturing Gould in the process of recording the work.

Now, we enter the risky business of deciding which one is “the best”.

I own copies of the 1955, 1959 and 1981 recordings, and whilst the first two are comparable in style and approach, the 1981 version has to be viewed as the document Gould left behind as being as close to “perfect” an interpretation as he could have produced.

If you allow yourself to search YouTube for Gould/Goldberg entries, you will undoubtedly find clips that do side-by-side comparisons, of the ’55 and ’81 recordings, and I retain two in particular:

Aria (1955 Vs 1981)

All 4 versions of the Variation 13

Because of its historic place in the Gould discography, the 1981 version invites close scrutiny, and clearly has its pros and cons. The pros are the recording quality, the maturity of the interpretation and (as stated before) the oversight minutia of a seasoned recording artist who understands all aspects of the process, and could splice together an “ultimate” interpretation. The cons are the eccentricities (certainly not as present in the ’55 recording) and the excesses in tempi and dynamics. For those who “tasted the Glenn Gould kool-aid”, these cons fall to the way-side. However, personally, I haven’t guzzled enough of the kool-aid to let that pass…

For my money, I like the Salzburg live version the best. It has the power and “otherworldly” technique of the ’55 version, with the added insight of over 100 performances of the work which provide a positive refinement to the ’55 studio version. In a word – the best of both worlds.

In closing, allow me a shout out to my brother: Bonne fête, Michel.

Links to Musical Rereferences in this post

June 24th 2011, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will be adding a new montage on "Summer" to its Pod-O-Matic Podcast. Read more June 24th on the ITYWLTMT Blogspot blog.
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Updated Jul-03-2011 at 20:52 by itywltmt (Removed warning)

Classical Music , Musicians , Recorded Music