My last blog post about Paul Auster's memoirs reminded me of the two versions of Bach's Goldberg Variations recorded by Glenn Gould: his 1955 debut album and the 1981 recording--done a year before the pianist's death.
Like the young Auster, the young Gould (in his early twenties) is brilliant and fascinating. He plays most of the thirty variations with speed, zeal and an intriguing accent, showing off a devilish charm of a math genius.
The most noticeable difference of the 1981 version from this earlier one is its tempo, which may appear to suggest that the once restless young musician slowed down later in life. But what is astonishing about Gould is the fact that age did not mellow him at all. To the contrary, his individuality seemed to have been sharpened over the years and became even more assertive while remaining equally bold. His strokes grew more articulate and his musical interpretations edgier. The unique characteristics of each variation is beautifully accentuated in his later interpretations.
Some of my favorite pieces in Goldberg Variations are the airy aria that initiates the variations, which is rendered particularly tender and contemplative in Gould's 1981 version and returns at the end of the whole set with an aching longing to stay on. Variation 15 is mournful, almost gloomy, but it never ceases to search for an answer, until the very end where it ascends to midair and simply evaporates. Variation 25, known as the "black pearl" of Goldberg Variation, is quietly Romantic, or passionately reflective, or perhaps both.
As a note to self, Evan Eisenberg wrote an exquisite piece on Goldberg Variation on Slate. It's a pleasurable read.