I'm sure everyone who's been reading this blog for a while recalls this exciting post in which I compared two recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Murray Perahia's and Glenn Gould's 1955 version. When speaking of Gould and the Goldbergs, one always has to specify which recording, the 1955 or 1981, because they're very different.
At the time I wrote that post, I had not yet heard the 1981. Almost four years later, I still had not, although I owned it, which just goes to show you how much more music I have than I can make time to listen to. Having given up music for Lent this year, I decided that I would break my fast with the 1981 Gould recording.
Someone had told me in some other discussion of these recordings that connoisseurs generally prefer the 1981. And, coincidentally, Neoneocon wrote about the two versions just a few days later (it's in the latter part of that post, not the Petula Clark part), and she also preferred it (though not claiming connoisseurship). So I felt a bit on the spot: was I going to prove myself a clod by liking the wrong one? Or perhaps not even be able to tell the difference?
Well, on the second point, no problem: the difference is immediately obvious. And on the first: so be it. I much prefer the 1955 recording. It's filled with a youthful spring-like joy that imparts the same to me. It's nimble and light, both precise and exciting in the quick parts, yet still having depth in the more reflective variations, e.g. #25, which is one of my favorites.
The 1981 version, in contrast, put me off from the beginning. The opening aria is taken at a crawl, and very quietly, as if we'd caught it stumbling into bed after a long night out. And then in the first variation Gould slams the opening chord with such force and suddenness that you briefly wonder if the whole piano-forte thing was a bad idea.
It gets better. And the recorded sound of course is superior, 1955 technology vs. 1981, though it struck me as a little too bright. A lot of people do apparently hear greater depths in it, and in time maybe I will, too. But I'm quite sure I'll never put aside the 1955 recording. I was gratified to find this piece in Slate by an actual critic whose first reaction was similar to mine: the aria is "so maddeningly slow it almost sounds like a stunt." Overall I agree with the comment on that Slate article, which describes the 1981 version as "disconnected" (the commenter goes on to explain why he likes it anyway).
Here's a comparison of the aria from the two versions, followed by some commentary to which I have not yet listened:
If you don't listen to much classical music, but are interested, this would certainly be a piece worth hearing. I'm sure there is some pretty amazing technical stuff going on, but you don't have to know anything much about music to realize that Bach is doing something wonderful in getting those thirty very various variations out of the same basic material. More importantly, it has plenty of direct emotional appeal that requires no knowledge at all to understand.