Music is mathematics that can be heard. It is feeling given voice. An object lesson in the mathematical properties of music is Bach’s Goldberg Variations, one of the most inventive and demanding scores (on both player and listener) in all keyboard literature. Beginning with a simple aria in two parts of 16 bars, dominated by a lovely saraband rhythm, Bach invested that aria 30 times over with renewed life, ending with the beginning aria.
Glenn Gould’s recording career began
with Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1955. His death coincided with the release in the United States of his rerecording of the same work (it will be available in Canada next week). There are worlds of difference between the two. The first recording is the work of a prodigy: fast, excitingly impulsive,
flashy and burning a trail of the headier, more obvious emotions. The second, a digital recording (his album of Haydn sonatas, earlier this year, was his first in digital), is perhaps the most meditative interpretation the Goldbergs are ever to get. Each phrase in the new recording—which is a full 12 minutes longer than the first—is pondered over and over: every note seeks a possible avenue of escape from an old way of thinking.
The first recording stunned the musical world not so much for its display of virtuoso technique as for its infusion of feeling—and Gould’s personality—into
Bach’s music, previously considered almost sacrosanct as a form of asceticism. When he listened to the 1955 Goldbergs before rerecording them last April, Gould found his early masterpiece to be short on humor and lacking the “explosion of simultaneous ideas” which he found essential for contrapuntal music. “Over the years I have come to feel that a musical work should have basically one pulse rate, one constant rhythmic reference point,” said Gould. “The trap in the Goldbergs is to avoid letting it come across as 30 independent pieces.”
The revisited Goldbergs share the same pulse rate. At first, it seems that each specific variation is a radical departure from its predecessor, but they
are connected by a gossamer tonal thread. The 1955 recording was a tribute to surfaces—a strand of 30 different pearls. The later investigation forges further into the music’s possible meanings. This time, there is a grace that seems to be the product of having lived and not just of having imagined. Accompanying humming aside (and it is irritating), this reading of Bach’s extraordinary musical universe has great depth of emotion—this time darker— and equal delicacy. The tone is vibrant, the rhythms often rhapsodic; Gould has made Bach wilder, more romantic than ever.
In his playing of Bach especially, Gould always suggested, in sound, that there was something to live for. Bach claimed that he made music for the greater glory of God; Gould seemed to make it simply because it was there and he was alive.
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