A Historic Recording: Glen Gould on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, 1955

Glenn Gould recording Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations in 1955. The complete sessions have been recently released on disc.

This might be the ultimate treat for Bach lovers – the complete recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations by the renowned Canadian pianist, Glen Gould in June 1955. It was In Gould’s first recording for Columbia Masterworks and he played Bach as if someone in a dark, stuffy room had parted the curtains and thrown open the windows. From the moment the 22-year-old Canadian pianist played his first notes in Columbia’s 30th Street Studio, it was clear that recording history was being made.

The recording was released on 3 January 1956 as a mono LP with the catalogue number ML 5060, at a price of $3.98. It broke all records and made Gould famous overnight. For years, the tapes of those sessions were kept in deep storage  at 65°F in the archives of Columbia Records (now Sony Classical). They were released only in 2017 in digital format.

In a 2004 interview, Columbia’s recording’s producer, Howard H. Scott, explained that Gould “changed a lot as he recorded because he wanted to try different tempos, different accents, different phrasings, because that’s why he loved recording so much.” His restless, searching mind is part of what made his playing so engrossing and original. But it’s also what made it challenging, Mr. Scott said, to complete the “Goldberg” recording.

Glen Gould in the early 1980s.

Understandably, not every Bach lover will want to immerse in such minutiae. Even the eccentric Gould himself grew to feel that his 1955 recording was, he said in an interview near the end of his life, “just too fast for comfort.” (Gould died in 1982 at the age of 50). In 1981, he had recorded the work again, with a still bracing but generally mellower approach. This version may be the one most Bach lovers prefer.


Samples of the complete 282 tracks:

THE 1981 RECORDING (Duration: 12:50)

Leave a Reply