The Man Who Made Bach Cool: Glenn Gould and His ‘Goldbergs’

The classical-music world seems to run on birthday celebrations plucked from its endless roll call of dead masters (is this the year of Arnold Bax?), but few birthdays are more deserving of recognition than that of Glenn Gould, who would have turned 70 on Sept. 25. For the occasion, Sony is releasing a three-disc set that includes his 1955 performance of the “Goldberg” Variations, which might well be the most influential classical recording ever made. I was a teenager when it first came out, and I well remember the effect it had on me and a generation of other Elvis-resistant music lovers. In those days, Bach hadn’t yet become a staple of Breakfast Baroque , and he was still a remote and pedantic figure whose knotty little preludes, fugues and inventions were castor oil for piano students. How astonishing it was to encounter that Columbia Masterworks LP with its yellow-tinted, thumb-sized photographs on the cover showing the tousled, 22-year-old Canadian pianist in a series of ecstatic poses, conducting and singing to himself in perpetual motion as he sailed through Bach’s most daunting keyboard masterpiece.

No musical performance has ever done such a thorough job of sweeping away the cobwebs as Gould’s “Goldbergs” did. He was not only playing the work on a modern piano, in contravention of the title under which it was published in 1742 ( Keyboard Practice for the Clavier; consisting of an Aria, with diverse variations ), but he attacked the 30 variations on a stately opening and closing tune as though he was having the time of his life. None of the variations’ downhill and uphill races, involving multiple overlapping ideas, acrobatic hand-crossings and blizzard-like fingerwork, held the slightest terror for him. He made every color in Bach’s intricate tapestry come alive: the courtly strutting, the rippling jocosity, the sweet pathos. It was “Look, Ma, no hands!”, pulled off with the sort of athletic insouciance we used to associate with Willie Mays, and for years Gould’s “Goldbergs” occupied pride of place on dormitory shelves next to Miles Davis and Billie Holiday, under posters of James Dean. Bach, thanks to Gould, was cool.

It’s startling to hear Gould, in an interview he gave in 1982 to the critic Tim Page to promote the release of a second recording of the “Goldbergs,” say that when he listened to that landmark recording more than 20 years later, he could not “recognize or identify with the spirit of the person who made [it].” Startling but not really surprising. At the core of Gould’s famous eccentricities-he wore winter clothing all year round, used a low-built folding chair instead of a piano stool and refused to give live concerts after 1964-was a fiercely self-protected genius, an internalized Flying Dutchman driven by an endless quest for musical, if not emotional, growth. Moreover, the sense of distance that he felt from his exuberant youth may have been prompted by a premonition that he didn’t have long to live: Six weeks after his remarks to Mr. Page, Glenn Gould died of a stroke in Toronto. He had just turned 50.

That interview, along with both recordings of the “Goldbergs,” is included in the new set called A State of Wonder . The somewhat Spielbergian title is borrowed from Gould’s 1962 article “Let’s Ban Applause!”-in which he wrote, in prose that was always as articulate as his playing, “The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.” What may seem merely another repackaging gimmick from an industry that’s loath to encourage new Gould-like talent is actually an invaluable document of one of the last century’s handful of truly revelatory musicians. Sony engineers remastered both performances from the original analog tapes, and Bach’s Pied Piper has never sounded better.

Gould’s surgical yet loving touch, which gives each note a full life of its own, and his incandescent sense of rhythm constitute one of the most recognizable styles in the recorded piano literature, and there’s never any doubt that both performances could only be his. But the differences between the young and the middle-aged man are illuminating. The 1955 “Goldbergs ” seem to take their cue from the legend surrounding the work’s composition, as passed down by Bach’s first biographer. In 1802, 52 years after Bach’s death, Johann Nicklaus Forked wrote that the variations were composed for a brilliant young harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, whose insomniac employer, Count Keyserlingk, needed some pieces of “a soft and somewhat lively character” to cheer him up during the night. After hearing the young Gould’s extroverted romp through the variations, which lasts a little more than 38 minutes and ignores all of the score’s indicated repeats, the Count would have had the happiest dreams imaginable.

The old boy might have been less beguiled by the 1981 performance, which lasts 13 minutes longer, includes some of the repeats, and indulges in tempi that are slow to the point of somnambulistic (the opening and closing arias are traversed at nearly half the speed of the earlier performance). Here, Gould seems to be playing entirely to himself, rapt in his inner hearing of the music, like some reincarnation of the deaf Beethoven. The performance could be said to illustrate a celebrated epiphany in Gould’s childhood that occurred when the family maid turned on a vacuum cleaner while he was practicing. In the midst of a Mozart fugue, the boy discovered that he liked the way the machine’s noise masked the sound of the piano, heightening the sense of his fingers on the keys and the workings of his imagination.

But no child could have produced the profoundly felt readings that the middle-aged Gould gives to the cycle’s great, climactic minor-key variations, Nos. 15 and 25, which may be the most expansively tragic utterances that I have ever heard from a pianist. (Gould tells Mr. Page that he regards Variation No. 15 as the “perfect Good Friday spell.”) In any event, in both the early and late “Goldbergs,” he’s so utterly true to himself that it’s pointless to ask which one is better.

Perhaps the most salutary effect of Gould’s breakthrough in 1955 was to embolden other performers to scale a monument that had previously been recorded by only a few Bach specialists. Today, my Gramophone catalog lists more than 60 versions of the “Goldbergs” by 40 different pianists, assorted harpsichordists, a string orchestra, a brass ensemble, an organist and a jazz trio. I have listened to a dozen or so different “Goldbergs” over the years, and the sheer variety of interpretations confirms my feeling that Bach had the best bones in the business.

Shortly before Gould’s death, he told an interviewer, Jonathan Cott, that as a young man he particularly admired the pianist Rosalyn Tureck’s “Goldbergs” for having “a moral rectitude in the liturgical sense.” Tureck’s later 1999 recording of the work for Deutsche Gramophone stands at one extreme of the spectrum: She’s a moral pedant who wants the listener to hear every phrase as though taking down lecture notes-instructive but enervating. Although the “Goldbergs” on harpsichord are a completely different animal, they attain a galvanic, steely splendor in a 1934 recording, remastered on EMI, by Tureck’s archrival, the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who allegedly cut her competitor down to size with the remark, “You play Bach your way, I’ll play Bach his way.” Whatever, I’ll take Landowska.

Pirated tapes of Gould’s triumphant concert tour of the Soviet Union in 1957 launched Andras Schiff’s long, brilliant love affair with Bach, and the Hungarian pianist’s delicately nimble 1982 recording of the “Goldbergs” on London has become a kind of model for the CD era: Bach played with a scrupulous, relentless prettiness. Such world-class virtuosos as Daniel Barenboim, on Teldec, and Murray Perhaia, on Sony Classical, later followed suit with a perfectionism that’s at once impeccable and remote. Perhaps the best of the cool-headed “Goldbergs” is that of the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt, who makes a persuasive case on Hyperion for the architectural rewards of playing all the repeats. Another Hyperion set, by the Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolaeva, sustains little more than a comfortable warmth until it rises to majestic sorrow in Variation No. 25, which Landowska dubbed “the Black Pearl.” In a class by itself are the “Goldbergs” of Maria Tipo on EMI, which match Gould’s in passionate intensity. There any similarity stops, for the Italian pianist-who’s a musical descendant of the great Bach bender, Ferruccio Busoni-applies her personal stamp with magnificent vengeance. She heretically adds sonorities of her own making, brings out inner voices with magisterial fervor, and switches tempi in mid-variation, all according to her own idiosyncratic-and deeply musical-sense of drama. Bach her way.

The best recent recording that I’ve heard is by John Kamitsuka, an American pianist whose musical intelligence and beautifully finished technique make me long to hear more of him on the New York concert scene. Recorded last year by the Bel Canto Society, Mr. Kamitsuka’s buoyant yet deeply grounded performance goes to the heart of the “Goldberg” Variations’ inexhaustible appeal as the most elegant expression of a composer for whom the earthy and the sublime were inseparable.