Classical Music 101 / Part Two: The Goldberg Variations

Now there is music from which a man can learn something.

-W.A. Mozart on J.S. Bach

J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations are an exquisite labyrinth. Any Bach beginner’s guide might choose the Brandeburg Concertos, in particular No. 5 with its crazy keyboard solo. Or the Cello Suites. Or the Halloween standard Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Or the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. But the Goldbergs, the Notorious BWV, published in 1741 (apocryphally done so to calm an insomniac Count) exhibit a range and intimacy perhaps never before encountered in Western music. From the opening Aria, the variations sing and dance and sigh, with moments of finger-tangling counterpoint balanced against the quietest polyphonies.

The Goldbergs are a set of 32 variations, with the main theme comprised of 32 bars. Every third variation is a canon, and these are interspersed with gigues, fugues, overtures and sarabandes. “Binary symmetry” is how recent interpreter Jeremy Denk describes the entwining, Escher-like pieces, and listening closely to the Goldbergs is like overhearing geometry sing.

Mostly unplayed until the mid-20th century, The Goldberg Variations have always made for a daring performance, demanding intense focus from musicians for its 80-plus minutes of continuous play, and incessant attention from listeners. Rudolf Serkin recorded the Goldbergs on Welte piano rolls (1928). Wanda Landowska was the first to offer a harpsichord pressing, in 1933, with a commanding interpretation.


Until Glenn Gould’s storied 1955 recording burst on the scene, the Goldbergs were all but nonexistent in the public realm. His unconventional studio recording is a benchmark, separating the Goldberg Variations into the BG and AG eras–before Gould and after. The Columbia release, with its 32 small photographs of the Canadian pianist is one of the most most iconic in recording history. It’s the Citizen Kane of classical music: much revered and imitated, groundbreaking, visionary, edgy. Gould cuts out Bach’s suggested repeats, making the act of listening to an hour and a half of G major a whole lot more palatable.


Rosalyn Tureck’s 1947 recording, nowadays maligned for its ponderousness, is at the other end of the spectrum. If you want to get lost in Bach’s looping pursuit of some intangible aural truth, this is a recommended place to start. On the harpsichord, Anthony Newman and Trevor Pinnock each gave spirited performances.

Andras Schiff has recorded the Goldbergs twice (the first on vinyl for Decca), and his playing is consistently refined (he includes all the repeats), taking a broad macro view of the score. Wilhelm Kempff gave a very strange, pointilist performance for DG, and if quantity is your thing, Tatiana Nikolayeva might be the best choice with her quintet of recordings.

The popularity of the Goldberg Variations has only increased, with transcriptions ranging from accordion to chamber orchestra. Regardless of the iterations, it is a rite of passage for both musicians and listeners alike.


Classical Vinyl 101 / Part One: The Four Seasons

Vivaldi is greatly overrated

-Igor Stravinsky

Lately, a few people have asked me what LPs they need to start a “best of” classical music collection. Navigating the interminable realm of classical recordings is daunting at best, so here’s a list of the most popular, need-to-own, works, in chronological order. I’ve also included two or three (totally subjective) standout performances on vinyl.

The Four Seasons (1723) / Antonio Vivaldi

Generally what people think when you mention the term Baroque. Vivaldi completed these 4 concerti for violin to convey, it’s believed, the countryside around Mantua.  Probably the most (over)recorded piece ever composed, with ensembles doing everything they can to distinguish themselves from the staggering quantity of different versions, like changing tempi and instrumentation, it remains a staple of the repertoire.


Neville Marriner leads the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in a performance on period instruments. Long considered the gold standard of the work, it’s probably the closest thing to hearing The Four Seasons as Vivaldi himself may have heard it.


A more modern, extremely fresh, version from Pinchas Zukerman and the English Chamber Orchestra.


Max Richter’s 2012 minimalist tweaking of the The Four Seasons provides a meditative, gorgeous listening experience. Besides being a deeply felt update of Vivaldi, it’s one of the best-sounding contemporary vinyl pressings out there.

As a postscript, it’s best to stay clear of big orchestra renditions, such as Herbert van Karajan’s peculiarly large-scale recording, with Ann-Sophie Mutter as violin soloist. And really anything with the name Nigel Kennedy attached to it.