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Friday, March 31, 2006

GLENN GOULD Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

CBS Masterworks IM 37779 (1982)

Legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould's recording of Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations is stamped so indelibly with his own personal stylistic imprint that I can't help but think of this work as sounding undeniably Canadian, even though it was written by a German composer over 250 years ago.

Bach composed the set in the mid-eighteenth century for Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling, who suffered from insomnia and requested some soothing music to help him sleep. Bach produced this set of a theme and thirty variations on a bassline, in which the original line of notes is put through changes of tempo, dynamics, ornamentation, and rhythm in each successive variation. The piece was performed by the gifted harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, hence the title. The theme and variations form had its origins in the street minstrels of the time (today we would call them "buskers"); a musician would take a given song and vary the style of the accompaniment so as to get as much use and variety out of the material as possible before moving on to the next tune. In the Goldberg Variations, Bach took this form to what many consider its apotheosis.

Gould actually recorded the Variations twice; once, in 1955, near the beginning of his career as a performer, and again in 1981, not long before his untimely death the following year at the age of 50. (By some happy quirk of fate, my previously owned copy of this album contains both discs.) In the 1981 recording, he plays the aria and its thirty variations without pause, one leading directly into another on the beat, often with dramatic dynamic shifts between them (the ultra-quiet aria at the beginning leading abruptly into the loud first variation is a signature of Gould's rendition, as well as his overall style).

Gould recorded prolifically for CBS, and every album he made for the label is worthy of attention, but the Goldberg Variations are absolutely essential for any classical music collection (and for any Canadian music collection as well).


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