The Gould That Didn't Glitter: New Box Set Of 'Goldberg Variations' Outtakes

Oct 25, 2017

Pianist Glenn Gould rocketed to fame in 1955 with his startling and original take on Bach's Goldberg Variations. Gould's fans were treated to a remake of Goldbergs in 1982, when he released a slower-paced rendition just before his untimely death. But it's that first, rapid fire 1955 recording that continues to captivate audiences.

Now there's an expanded version, a hefty box set that illustrates Gould's intense perfectionism. The set includes the original 1955 album – both on vinyl and CD – and the complete recording sessions, with all the outtakes.

Tim Page, professor of music and journalism at the University of Southern California, was a friend of Glenn Gould's and has sifted through the new set. He says when Gould released that 1955 recording it was an extraordinary moment.

"Here was this piece that was considered rather academic and a little fusty, and here came this brilliant, 22-year-old pianist from Canada playing as though he was running with the wind," Page says. "It was so surprising, so dynamic. People had been moving away from playing Bach on the piano and all of a sudden here comes the young Glenn Gould."

Gould's 1955 recording has remained in print for 62 years. And though Gould became a creature of the recording studio himself, what would he think of this new set, with its hours of retakes, mistakes and out of tune pianos?

Howard Scott thinks he knows the answer. Scott produced those original 1955 Gould sessions, and in the coffee table book included in the set, he has strong language for the record label.

"If Glenn knew Sony Classical was going to release those outtakes, which he rejected – he did not like what he had done in those performances – he would probably come down and shoot anybody who allowed them to be released," Scott says in an interview. "And I think it's a disgrace if they do release them." But Sony did release them – all five CDs-worth.

Page takes an alternative position. Also within the new box set is a radio interview Page did with Gould in 1982, a few months before the release of his second recording of the Goldbergs.

"He insulted this 1955 performance all through the interview," Page says. "So, I think he would probably just take it easily because nobody could do worse to this recording than Glenn himself did in our interview."

Gould told Page that he could no longer recognize "the spirit of the person" who made the 1955 recording. After they listen to variation 25, Page compliments Gould on the playing, but the pianist gets specific with his criticism:

"There's a lot of piano playing going on there. And I mean that as the most disparaging comment possible. The line is being pulled every which way, there are cute little dynamic dips and tempo shifts, things that pass for expressive fervor in your average conservatory, I guess. This variation represents everything I mistrust about the earlier version. It wears its heart on its sleeve. It seems to say, 'Please take note. This is tragedy.' It doesn't have the dignity to bear its suffering with a hint of quiet resignation."

Still, Page says that while Gould preferred his later recording, it's the 1955 version which introduced the pianist to the world and it's the performance that "will always shock and delight, the first time you hear it." Gould would turn his back on the concert stage in 1964 to retreat into the recording studio, where he perfected his albums.

There have been other dynamic superstars in classical, pop and jazz, according to Page, but with Gould it's a matter of what we could have had if he had lived longer.

"He's one of these people like James Dean," Page adds. "There's not as much of it as we would like, because there was an early death, which leaves us fascinated with the person and what the person left us. It was strange because Glenn was having one of those mid-career boosts right at the time. And I can still remember this feeling, picking up the New York Times and seeing on the front page that he was dead at the age 50."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Glenn Gould's career as a classical pianist was framed by two recordings of one piece, Bach's "Goldberg Variations."

(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN GOULD'S "BACH: THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS")

SIEGEL: This is from Gould's startling and original recording of the piece in 1955. It was his first recording for a big label, Columbia Records, and it made him an instant sensation.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN GOULD'S "BACH: THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS")

SIEGEL: In 1981, a little over a year before his death, Gould rerecorded the Goldberg Variations. This time, he slowed the pace.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN GOULD'S "BACH: THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS")

SIEGEL: But the 1955 recording continues to captivate listeners.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN GOULD'S "BACH: THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS")

SIEGEL: There's now an expanded version of that recording - a hefty box set that illustrates Gould's intense perfectionism. It also includes music critic Tim Page's interview with Gould about the later recording. Page was a friend of Glenn Gould's, and he has sifted through the new box set. Tim Page says that when Gould's original recording of the "Goldberg Variations" was released, it was an extraordinary moment.

TIM PAGE: Here was this piece which was considered rather academic and a little fusty, and here came this brilliant 22-year-old pianist from Canada playing it as though he was running with the wind. I mean, it was so surprising, so dynamic. People had been moving away from playing Bach on the piano. And all of a sudden, here comes the young Glenn Gould. And he turns this into a recording. You know, it's never gone out of print in all these 50 - 62 years now. So it's remarkable.

SIEGEL: Now, in the new box set, we get to hear not just the recording that was released, but we hear Gould's outtakes. He plays a variation. He stops. He plays it again. He talks with a (unintelligible). Here's an example of one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GLENN GOULD: (Playing piano) - all right, position 2, take 11A. (Playing piano).

SIEGEL: OK, you knew Glenn Gould. What do you think he would make of our listening to his outtakes, his pitches that missed the strike zone?

PAGE: Well, you know, when he reissued this - I mean, when he did his second Goldbergs, we did a radio interview where he insulted this 1955 performance all through the interview. So I think he would just probably take it easily 'cause nobody could do worse to this recording than Glenn himself did in our interview.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Yes. He said he despised the 1955 recording. And at one moment in that interview, he says something I found stunning about how he played variation number 25.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOULD: This variation, number 25, represents everything that I mistrust in the early version of the recording. It wears its heart on its sleeve. It seems to say, please take note. This is tragedy. You know, it doesn't have the dignity to bear its suffering with a hint of quiet resignation.

PAGE: And the new version does?

GOULD: Well, I'm prejudiced, but I think it does, yeah.

SIEGEL: So is this just a middle-aged man reflecting on the excesses of his own youth when he was in his 20s, or is it a real, fascinating critique of what he did in that first recording?

PAGE: Well, I - you know, there are people who still prefer the 1955 and who prefer the 1981. And Glenn definitely preferred the 1981. But the fact of the matter was the 1955 performance that really got us all interested in Glenn. And the first performance will always shock and delight the first time you hear it.

SIEGEL: What stays with me as being especially remarkable about that event - that young Glenn Gould walks into a state-of-the-art recording studio, such as it was in 1955. It was at a time when I recall older classical artists complaining that recording was undermining live performance. People were getting accustomed to perfectly-produced and, you know, remixed records. And Gould, far from reacting negatively to all that, seems to fall in love with the process of recording, and he seems to fall in love with the kind of perfection you could achieve in a recording that you couldn't achieve in a concert hall.

PAGE: Well, and in fact, nine years later, he would absolutely give up on the concert hall. But you know, what's interesting about this - we talk about perfection. One of the first things Glenn says on these outtakes is, who tuned the piano?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOULD: Who tuned this piano this morning? Listen to this. (Playing piano).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, I can hear that.

PAGE: Because the piano, as you can hear at various points, is actually out of tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN GOULD'S "BACH: THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS")

SIEGEL: For people who don't remember 1955 at all, who - it's not their fault. They weren't born yet. Has there been a...

PAGE: Even those of us who were born don't remember that.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: This is true. If - has there been a classical performer in recent years who arrived on the scene and who became an instant star that's still comparable to what that Gould recording in 1955 represents?

PAGE: The thing about Glenn - and I don't want to remotely seem morbid here. But you know, he's one of these people like James Dean. There's not as much of it as we would like because there was an early death which leaves us fascinated with the person and with what the person left us but makes us want to hear more.

He didn't play in front of the public after 1964, and then people were only really starting to get very interested in him again right about the time he died. There was a whole new group of critics who were fascinated by him and actually thought that what was treated as his crazy idea not to play in public was actually a rather smart idea and allowed him to live the way he wanted. It was strange because Glenn was having one of those mid-career boosts right at the time. You know, and I can still remember this feeling picking up The New York Times and seeing on the front page that he was dead at the age of 50.

SIEGEL: Tim Page is a professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California. He was talking with us about Glenn Gould. Thanks for talking with us again, Tim.

PAGE: It's my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN GOULD'S "BACH: THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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