Goldberg Variations (1955) CD, Original recording remastered, Import
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This is the recording that first announced the Gould supernova to the musical world. He was 22 years old in 1955, he disavowed this account when he recorded the work again in 1981, but much as I admire the latter this is the one for me. It is historic in more ways than one. In the first place it restored Bach-playing on the piano to fashionable respectability, as even Rosalyn Tureck had not quite managed to do. In the second place it marked the debut of one of the greatest geniuses, I am in no doubt at all, that ever played the instrument. Gould was a scholar and intellectual (although an unpretentious one), and his feeling and respect for the spirit of Bach's style were as acute as his interpretative sense was imaginative. However what pinned everyone's ears back when Gould came on the scene was just his phenomenal skill as an executant. Michelangeli himself was not more of a perfectionist than Gould was, and the cut-diamond super-perfection of his runs, trills and ornaments remains a thing to astonish the listener even in an age of ultra-accomplished technicians of the instrument. He has never been to everyone's taste, so I have no way of knowing whether he will be to yours with his rocketing speeds in certain variations, but I simply can't get enough of him.
There is a minor extra with this new release, namely some snippets from the recording sessions. This bonus is of course interesting, given that we are dealing with a prodigy of quite the stature of Gould, but I can't hear it as any major event given this maestro's well-known talkativeness. It can do no possible harm quite obviously, and if it gets on your nerves nothing is easier than to skip it. Failing that, Sony still seem to have the 1992 set available. Gould died abruptly of a stroke shortly before his 50th birthday, leaving behind him a more generous recorded legacy than certain other maestros of comparable eminence whom I shall not name. We lost him while he was still at the summit of his powers, and I have no idea what his early loss has denied us, because his range was a lot wider than one sometimes sees suggested. One way or another, this is the performance that set the ball rolling. As with the 1992 set there are a couple of fugues from the 48 as fillers, and the mildly interesting new element may simply be there to pad out the playing time, as in this performance Gould does not play repeats in the variations. His own essay accompanies the set by way of a liner-note, and for all its PhD-student idiom its fascination is obvious and intense given its authorship. I have his later performance too, including the broadcast discussion in which he repudiates this performance. It may be that I shall someday come to hear the matter the way he did, but I very much doubt it. This is the performance for me.
Great recording. Of the two Gould's I now prefer the second but I wouldn't be without this one either.