Yesterday, I found Simone Dinnerstein’s 2007 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and liked it very much. The piano has a good tone, neither too bright nor too dark. The articulation is clear and crisp but not overly staccato. What I liked most were the slow tempos. I suspect that many pianists approach Bach as a technical challenge and thus an opportunity to display their talent. Some of Bach’s works do seem to be more about technical challenge and mathematics than music. They are too dense. It’s why I listen more now to the keyboard works of C.P.E. Bach, one of Johann Sebastian’s sons. They are less dense, more musical, more accessible. In any case, the Goldberg Variations are not one of those dense, overly technical and mathematical works. There’s music in them. Much music. Beautiful, beautiful music. Some variations must be played slowly enough to let the music out. (Other variations are pure joy at high speed.)
Had I found a recording of the Goldberg Variations that I liked even better than Glenn Gould’s second recording of the work, which I adore? Is that even possible? Maybe! Let’s listen to more …
While I was listening to Dinnerstein play the sixth variation, the high notes seemed weak. My first thought was: How could she do that? She can obviously play this stuff. Why leave the high voice weak? My second thought was: Gould must certainly make that voice sing. Let’s find out.
So I listened to Gould’s second recording of the sixth variation. Before he even got to the section in which I was concerned about the high notes (which were just as weak to me as in Dinnerstein’s recording), I froze while standing in the middle of our living room. A smile took over my face. Everything about Gould’s playing was more satisfying to me than Dinnerstein’s: more crispness, more clarity, more boldness, more musicality, an even better tone from the piano. Once again, Gould had transported me into a world that only he could create.
While he was playing, I had to make my wife listen to the aria and to me telling her why I like it.
Please note that I know this aria very well. I’ve made a start at learning to play it myself. It’s the first alarm that goes off every morning to wake me up. (The second alarm is Norah Jones’ Sunrise.) I’ve listened many times to Gould’s second recording and, fewer times, to Murray Perahia’s recording. Occasionally, I listen to other pianists and other arrangements. The Canadian Brass recorded the Goldberg Variations, and there’s a gorgeous string trio version of it played by Martin Beaver, Bryan Epperson, and David Harding. Recently, I attended the debut of Christopher Taylor’s hyperpiano, on which Taylor performed the Goldberg. These Variations are my favorite piece of music. The aria is my favorite part of it. I have heard it so many times that I have to ration my listening of it because I’m afraid of getting tired of it. (I’ve had to take the same approach with Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and Paul Simon’s Graceland. I should have tried that approach with the Beatles’ whole oeuvre.)
So there I stand in the living room, eyes closed, moving my arms to the music, telling my wife how profound the sadness and the wisdom are in this composition and this recording that I know almost well enough to be tired of.
And I cry.
Why? Why do I perceive sadness and wisdom in this work? Why does it affect me? I can think of a few reasons.
One reason is the sounds themselves. The simplicity of the music, in sharp contrast to much of what Bach wrote. The slow tempo. The harmonies. The flow of the melody. Gould’s apparent, slight, hesitating rubato which makes me feel that he is feeling the piece and that we are feeling what Bach felt and wanted us to feel. (Later, I listened to another recording of the aria that was corrupted, utterly ruined by excessive, sentimental rubato. Not with Gould.) The repetition of the high G that starts the work as the bass climbs simply and slowly. I hear Bach saying: »This is it. This is life. And death. And all the struggles and sadness and joy in between. Nothing showy about it. One note can say just about everything that has to be said if you play it right and listen to it right.«
(On a consulting job, I worked near an elevator that announced its arrival on the floor with a tone that seemed to be a high G to my very pitch-imperfect ear. Every time that elevator arrived on the floor, the aria from the Goldberg Variations started playing in my head. And that elevator landed on our floor frequently. The Variations squatted in my brain for months.)
Another reason is Gould’s decision to record the piece a second time and play it very differently from how he did the first time. He recorded it the first time when he was 22 or 23, too young to know much about life. He played — here it comes, the word always attached to him — eccentrically. He played intellectually. Twenty-six years later, he recorded the piece again and played it quite differently. The difference suggests growth, maturity, insight to me. What had Gould learned in those 26 years about the piece, himself, life? He lived in anxiety about his health. He died the year after his second recording. Does his playing express his feelings about death? About the shortness and joys and sadnesses of life? I like to think that it does. It seems similar to Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight in this regard: a genius reflects later in life on his art and life and death. And the sadness and the wisdom that come out are almost profound enough and intense enough to frighten us.
Another reason is what I know and imagine about Bach. He published the work when he was 55 or 56, a little younger than Gould was at the second recording, in an era when mid-fifties was pretty old. Three sons by his first wife died in their first year. His first wife died suddenly at a young age. Seven children by his second wife did not survive into adulthood. This man knew something about life and death and could assume that he would not live much longer himself. (He lived nine more years.) Am I hearing his feelings about life and death when I respond emotionally to the aria? I like to think so.
Another reason, of course, is my own awareness of the shortness and joys and struggles and sadnesses of life. Sharing this piece with my wife deepens that awareness even more.