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The Product as Advertised? The Case of Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations

November, 2002

I recently received for review from Columbia/Legacy/Sony a set of three CDs that should delight all students of the classical piano repertory. The full title seems to be "The Complete Goldberg Variations (1955 & 1981): A State of Wonder." The first CD contained the 1955 recording of the "Goldberg Variations" by Bach as interpreted by Glenn Gould, a recording that has never left the catalogue. The second CD holds his 1981 rethinking of this masterpiece—and one would scarcely know that the same pianist who played the piece a quarter century earlier was playing it again. The third CD contains an interview with the artist and some outtakes from the second recording.

All of this is well and good, especially for Gould fanatics and possibly even more so for his detractors. But I am not here to review the set but to confront certain issues that arise from it. As my fellow Art Times writers about theatre and film might agree, when one goes to see a stage or film production of (say) "The Gondoliers" by Gilbert & Sullivan, they have a certain right to presume they will hear the words of the first and the music of the second. But when productions up in Canada and way out in Australia insist on changing both dialogue and lyrics for the sake of "local jokes," then a person has every right to protest. The product was not as advertised.

The Gould recording, however, raises the question of decisions made by a soloist concerning the music of his composer. First we will grant that Gould has every right to reject his first quickly played and youthful 1955 version. As the interviewer points out, the timings of the opening aria in the 1955 and 1981 recordings are in a 7:12 ratio. The earlier recording has no repeats, the 1981 has several. Also each variation in the later set is usually slower than the 1955 playing (although some are actually faster) and certain passages or indeed entire variations are played twice—determined by Gould's preferences.

One cannot really object to this, other than wondering if most listeners will go along with those particular repeated passages to the exclusion of others. He then talks about how he changes the note values of one or two of the variations, and this is where some critics begin to bridle. Many have avoided recordings of "the classics" conducted by Stokowski because he had a habit of "improving" on the orchestrations of Beethoven and others. So one never could be sure if he was purchasing the product as advertised when he was conducting. We must grant that each player should bring something of his or her own personality into the performance; but at which point does rewriting the piece to suit one's own tastes become misrepresentation if not outright vandalism?

I must state here that if one purchases a recording of Duke Ellington's "Nutcracker Suite," he cannot expect to hear the same tempi and orchestration as on (say) the Dorati recording. We know that Ellington is going to change it, and indeed it is for his interpretation that we make the purchase. But when we see "Goldberg Variations," we cannot be blamed for expecting to hear what Bach composed. Unless, of course, one argues that one does not purchase a Gould recording with the expectation of hearing what the cover says is inside!

The question also came up in the interview about playing a harpsichord piece on a modern piano. Gould's answer was what one would expect: Bach would have approved. (One could say this about any dead composer without fear of objection or contradiction. I am sure a xylophone virtuoso would say the same thing about his rendition of a Chopin Prelude.) Towards the end of his career, Bach did a lot of transcribing of his own works for different instruments. This is not to say he wanted things that way. What Gould means is that Gould plays a modern piano, loves Bach, and is more or less obliged to assume his composer would approve.

But soloists and indeed conductors are supposed to interpret the music. There is the famous incident in which Toscanini conducted the world premier of "Bolero" and incurred the wrath of Ravel because of the tempo he had chosen. The piece succeeded. Who was "right"? So while I do not pretend in any honesty to answer the question as to whether Gould or whoever has any business changing the words or notes of the composer whose work he is performing, I wonder what you think about this. Perhaps I can get another article out of your answers. Try me at behrens@cheshire.net.

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