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.