Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations

Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was, by universal consent, one of the greatest pianists of the last or indeed any other century. He was also, by some considerable margin, one of the most eccentric – though those more interested in that side of his character would probably be better off with Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould or indeed Gould’s own copious (and fascinating) writings and interviews: on this DVD, the music very much comes first.

The main feature is pretty much what you’d expect – after a brief introduction and interview with director Bruno Monsaingeon (who also made the excellent Richter The Enigma, also available on DVD), Glenn Gould performs the complete Goldberg Variations by J.S.Bach, and that’s all you get in terms of visuals: it’s shot from a variety of angles, none of them especially unusual or (more importantly) distracting, and long takes predominate.

Pianists are given plenty of opportunities to study his inimitable low-slung keyboard technique and indeed posture, those who are convinced that they could hear Gould singing along faintly on the CD can have their suspicions more than confirmed, and those who want to hear one of the most important pianists in the history of the medium giving what is generally acknowledged to be one of his finest performances (indeed, arguably the definitive performance of this particular work) are unlikely to be too disappointed: in fact, if they’re anything like me, they’ll probably be enraptured throughout.

But this performance has resonances beyond the music itself, and the more you know about the background, the more poignant it becomes. One of the many peculiarities of Gould’s public career is that it’s bookended by recordings of the same work: his overnight-sensation 1955 debut and the recording contained on this DVD. Stranger still, the Goldberg Variations were hardly considered blockbuster material – indeed, back in 1955 they were barely known, and considered a highly unusual if not downright perverse choice of music for a young pianist to perform as his first commercial recording.

Of course, by the time he re-recorded them in 1981, things had changed dramatically – Gould’s original recording was so stratospherically famous that it was… well, literally blasted into the stratosphere, included among a tiny handful of artefacts on the Pioneer 10 space probe, to demonstrate to curious aliens the majesty of human artistic endeavour. So, as with any remake, there was a great deal of speculation as to just why Gould was revisiting his first big hit.

Gould himself was keen to clarify his reasons – “I think that the great majority of the music that moves me very deeply is music that I want to hear played – or want to play myself, as the case may be – in a very ruminative, very deliberate way. As I’ve grown older, I find the great majority of my early performances too fast for comfort. With really complex contrapuntal textures, one does require a certain deliberation, and I think that, to come full circle, it’s the lack of that deliberation that bothers me in the first version of the Goldberg. I really do like the second version better. It doesn’t have the same buoyancy and devil-may-care quality, but it’s so serene and so reflective”.

It’s this serenity that gives this version its impact – particularly the conclusion in which he revisits the main theme… and of course revisits the main theme of his first ever recording and, most poignantly of all, completes what would be his last testament to the outside world. He would live another year, but this was his final recording, and he died just after its release. Watching the DVD, it’s clear that Gould is not a well man – he’s visibly overweight, pasty-faced and sweaty, he makes little attempt to suppress his notorious tendency to sing along with his playing (though this can only faintly be heard: the microphones are focused very much on the piano) and there are occasional signs of physical discomfort, but such is the almost trance-like quality of his playing that this quickly becomes irrelevant.

As his biographer Otto Friedrich commented on this video recording, “as one watches, one gradually abandons all these prejudiced observations and becomes a participant in Gould’s extraordinary perforrmance. Not only is he playing beautifully, and passionately, but he looks serenely and profoundly happy in his transcendental ability to do what he is doing. Never before has he so clearly achieved his youthful goal of ecstasy.”

And that ecstasy is very much shared by his audience: this is a performance of astonishing power and emotional impact as well as awe-inspiring technical dexterity – Gould’s ability to bring out each individual voice in Bach’s often insanely complex counterpoint was impressive enough on record and CD, but this DVD adds the extra dimension letting us see how he achieved these effects, and marvel anew at their clarity. It’s an amazing experience – and, gratifyingly, Sony are clearly aware of its magnitude, and have done an excellent job of bringing it to us on DVD.

I didn’t have especially high hopes for the video side of things, but the picture is actually pretty good considering the built-in limitations of the original material. It was intended for early 1980s television broadcasts and was clearly shot on NTSC videotape – so the fact that it was non-anamorphic 4:3 came as no surprise, and neither was the fact that the picture resolution and dynamic range don’t exactly stretch the DVD format (where the lighting is well-defined, the results are excellent, but there’s virtually no shadow detail: the side of the piano is a black void). The image is also a tad smeary, particularly where movement is concerned – but, all things considered, it’s all perfectly acceptable, and there were no obvious visual blemishes either in terms of the digital transfer or the original materials: the tapes have obviously been given the kind of preservation their historical importance demands.

The sound is a different matter: it was simultaneously recorded for both television and LP and was one of the earliest commercial digital recordings (it pre-dated compact discs by a couple of years), and the results are outstanding. Pianos are notoriously difficult to record well – their size and shape militates against effective microphone placement – but this is way ahead of the norm. Gould was fascinated by recording technology and had a very considerable input into the technical side of things, recording dozens of takes until he was satisfied with both the performance and its reproduction – and the results do him full justice. At the time of its original release, this was hailed as a milestone in the history of recording, and it’s worn exceptionally well: it’s hard to imagine a contemporary studio achieving anything noticeably better.

There are two sound options: PCM Stereo and Dolby Digital 2.0 – and for me there was absolutely no contest: the PCM recording was infinitely superior on every single level (you can switch soundtracks on the fly to facilitate comparison): it’s a much fuller, more rounded sound that beautifully showcases the full dynamic and tonal range of the piano while at the same time bringing out every note in scintillating detail (just listen to that lovely pianissimo whisper of the final variation at the end).

Possibly because they lack the glamour of their 5.1 surround sound cousins, PCM soundtracks are often underrated – but they’re potentially capable of offering the finest reproduction of any DVD sound format, by virtue of the fact that they’re uncompressed (even DTS soundtracks undergo some compression). As a result, this is as close to the original master tape as you’re likely to get (in fact, depending on the latter’s bitrate, it may well reproduce it exactly!).

By contrast, the Dolby Digital track is obviously compressed and noticeably tinnier, particularly in the higher register. I presume Sony only offered it to ensure maximum compatibility, but it’s hard to imagine anyone preferring it. I dipped into it occasionally, but was only too happy to return to the PCM track – and, stating the obvious, my perfect 10 refers purely to the latter: the Dolby Digital track only musters a 6 or 7.

There are thirty-four chapter stops, and they cover exactly what you’d expect: the introduction and all the individual variations. Commendably, the chapter listing identifies them all by name, making it a doddle to select favourite movements.

There’s a reasonably good selection of extras, focusing on what one would expect: namely, the composer, the music and the pianist. French and German speakers will probably be delighted to hear that the disc is trilingual throughout, offering full translations of all the English text and optional subtitles on the interview clips (though oddly enough English subtitles aren’t provided – presumably on the grounds that this DVD would be wasted on the hard of hearing!).

About Glenn Gould is a multi-part section containing both text and video clips. A reasonably comprehensive twelve-page biography covers most of the obvious background, and a seventeen-page discography (and filmography: it concludes with Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould) itemises every single one of his Bach recordings. The highlight of this section is a two-minute video interview with Gould in which he explains his approach to Bach and his theories on how to perform his work in the twentieth century (bearing in mind Bach wouldn’t have been familiar with the piano). And finally, there’s a tiny (three-picture) stills gallery and a link to the Glenn Gould website, for those using a DVD-ROM drive.

Gould and the Goldberg Variations is a three-part section that reproduces the original sleeve notes of his 1955 LP, his 1981 LP and the original video release. The most detailed by far are Gould’s own notes for the 1955 recording, which clock in at 21 pages and include musical examples (in notated rather than recorded form), while the other two essays are about half the length.

Behind the Scenes covers the recording of this particular version. Again, it’s in three parts – the first being a four-picture gallery, the second being a brief biography of Bruno Monsaingeon, while the most substantial section is a seven-page account of Columbia’s now defunct 30th Street Studios, where this and many other classic recordings were originated.

Finally, About J.S.Bach is self-explanatory: a two-part section that contains an eleven-page biography of the composer plus a family tree (the Bachs produced more major musicians than any other similar dynasty, even leaving the Strausses standing).

Good though these extras are, I can’t help feeling a little short-changed considering the wealth of backup material that could have been added, much of which is sitting in Sony’s own archives. For instance, to promote the LP and video, Gould recorded an interview with himself in which he explained his reasons for revisiting his 1955 recording, and this could have made a wonderful supplement (indeed, a potential commentary, possibly with Monsaingeon padding it out with accounts of the recording session, edited Criterion style). Similarly, the discography, while admirably completist, doesn’t stretch the DVD format at all – there’s no obvious reason why Sony – who, after all, own the rights to most of the recordings listed – couldn’t have included a few extracts, not least for the nakedly commercial reason of promoting their CDs!

That said, though, I was rather more impressed with this DVD than I expected to be on the strength of a bald outline of its contents. The picture was comfortably ahead of expectations, and the PCM soundtrack is of demonstration quality – which is what really matters with material like this. All in all, it’s a perfect companion piece to the more diffuse Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould – not least because it gives us an unparalleled opportunity to see the real Gould in action: François Girard’s film merely features him on the soundtrack. And it’s a genuinely overwhelming experience.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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