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Reviews: Bach: Goldberg Variations - Glenn Gould

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Reviews: 3

Review by Cellophile May 31, 2005 (16 of 17 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
I have both Glenn Gould versions (1955 and 1981) on CD, the SACD version of the 1981 listed here, as well as an SACD with Perahia's version. I have listened to them all many times recently, compared them extensively, and read a biography of Gould. There is also an interesting movie...32 Short Films about Glenn Gould....this is what sparked my interest in Gould...highly reccommended.

Gould was eccentric to say the least. His forte was contrapuntal music. The 1955 recording was an instant hit, and catapulted him to international fame. He re-recorded very few things, but the Goldbergs were redone because he had a new unified vision of the entire piece, bound together by a constant pulse. The opening aria, and the closing one are 1/2 the speed of the 1955 version, but the remainder of the variations are not too different in overall timing, except he did perform the repeats in the 1981 version, so that the overall length is about 38 min (1955) and 53 minutes (1981) BTW, Perahia's is 71 minutes.The "constant pulse was not the same metronome marking for each variation, but an oftentimes complex relationship, like a dotted quarter noe in one variation might equal2 eith notes in another variation. He discusses this in an interview with Tim Paige that you can hear if you buy the new 3 CD set "Glenn Gould, a State if Wonder", Sony S3K 87703, which has both versions and the interview.

First of all, although the Perahia's are a fine reading, Gould is incredible. The rock steady beat, the stacatto, the balance of voices bring out the structure of Bach's masterpiece like no other. His articulation of every note is so perfect it is scary. the evenness of difficult runs and trills is breathtaking. He was probably technically the greatest pianist of his time, IMHO. I do prefer the second version, and after many listenings, one can feel the unity he spoke of, even though I cannot analyse it like Gould does. You can just sense it. The SACD is superior to the CD taken from the same analog masters. Its the old thing about the high register of the piano on CD, so much smoother on SACD, less nail scratching. But I must say, the new version CD I mention above was well mastered too. I think 2 channel is perfect for a solo piano recording. The acoustics were perfect for the Gould SACD, unlike the Perahia, where the environment was too reverberant.

If you like Bach, you simply must have this SACD. I know the 1955 version is an all time classic but the 1981 is musically superior. But get both versions and you will love them both.

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Review by qualia8 August 28, 2006 (7 of 11 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
This is my favorite musical recording. I won't rehash the usual take on Gould -- eccentric, eerily precise, egomanical. I will say only that Gould, especially in this performance, stands quite apart from other classical musicians, even the great ones. He hears multiple voices as if hearing each one separately, then phrases them each independently and forces his listeners to hear what he hears. This demands not only freakish control of the fingers, but the ability to hear polyphony for what it is: simultaneously arcing but fundamentally discrete lines. Gould's "dry" recording conditions, his treble-friendly balance, his ubiquitous staccato are all tools for communicating the polyphonic truth as clearly and directly as possible. What is amazing is that this unromantic style of playing, this unearthly precision and mathematical exactness will flood you with emotion. When the underlying structure of Bach's little gem of is truly revealed -- and if you haven't heard this recordning, you haven't seen it yet -- you feel yourself exalted. You are in the presence of the transcendent, the divine. You are in a state of wonder.

The recording quality is good and perfectly suited to Gould's aim, but it's not the most realistic piano recording I've heard. No surprise here, as it was recorded over two decades ago. No matter, it is far better than the 1955 and the live performances, and it is better than redbook. For instance, the dynamic range is superb. The first bass note of the first variation is a stinging stacatto that once blew up my amp. (I always listen to this note on rival recordings. None has the character or guts of this one, which is pure controlled aggression.) Also, the SACD has lots of headroom for Gould's celestial, ringing tone.

If you only buy one SACD, this should be the one.

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Review by canonical March 19, 2009 (14 of 17 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
Revised Saturday 21 March 2009


I am a Gould fan, I have essentially all his recordings, and I particularly obsess over the 1981 Goldberg CD which remains one of my core reference CDs. When I buy hi-fi, I turn up with the 1981 CD. When I buy a car and want to listen to the audio, I turn up with the 1981 CD ... .

The 1981 CD was produced in DDD ... it is one of the earliest digital recordings ... at a time when the digital studio masters were at no higher resolution than the CD format itself. The recording was most likely done at 14 or 16 bits, at 44.1KHz. If so, there is nothing to be gained by transferring a DDD studio master that is no better than CD resolution onto SACD. The best you can ever do is the quality of the source file, and if that is already digital and no better resolution than redbook itself, than moving it onto SACD, or Bluray or onto the moon can only ever, at best, yield you what you started with. The whole point of SACD is to use studio masters that exist in higher resolution than the redbook format allows: placing onto redbook causes information loss, but placing onto SACD does not.

The SACD version of this disc has basically sold out in the West, but I managed to source a copy from Japan. Upon playing it, my almost immediate reaction was that it sounded MORE quantised ... MORE digital .... than my original 1981 DDD CD ... not less so. This led to bouts of intense head scratching and some detective work. The puzzle unravels so ...

The Three Versions

This wonderful recording from 1981 now exists in 3 versions:

A. 1981: The original 1981 DDD recording on CD
B. 1999: The SACD version - mastered from what?
C. 2002: The "A State of Wonder" redbook re-release version - produced from the 'safety net' analogue masters.

The Analogue Masters: abracadabra

In the technical notes to the 2002 "A State of Wonder" re-release of the 1981 recording on CD, the re-issue producer, Luise de la Fuente, explains the existence of a 1981 analogue master, in addition to the 1981 digital master. The producer writes:


"Digital technology was in its infancy in 1981, when Gould recorded Bach's Goldberg variations for a second time. ... digital technology delivered a very clean, quiet sound - free of tape hiss and LP surface noise - but it was also brittle, compressed, and not quite 'musical' to many listeners' ears. But digital technology was new in 1981 so everyone wanted to use it - including Glenn Gould, a known technology aficionado. Fortunately, as a precaution, most records were recorded simultaneously onto high-output analogue tape; and in 1981 professional analogue technology was at its peak. With properly aligned machines and perfectly calibrated Dolby units, analogue's fidelity was far superior to anything digital had to offer.
While Steve Berkowitz, Tim Page, Richard King, Andreas Meyer and I were auditioning the session tapes for this package - listening to out-takes that could be interesting to include - we used the analogue reels for their easy handling. Soon after this process began it became apparent to us all - the analogue tapes sounded far superior to the digital tapes. A note-for-note analogue vs. digital comparison test ensued and, it was unanimously agreed that sure enough, the analogue tapes sounded 'better' - more natural and musical. And we knew we had to use these never-before-heard analogue tapes for this special release.
Our process included converting the analogue tapes to state-of-the-art Sony Direct Stream Digital (DSD) drives and then painstakingly editing them, using Gould's actual session scores and notes ....The real challenge came in getting all of this great sound onto a 16-bit, 44.1 KHz compact disc."


So what is this 1999 SACD produced from?

The first clue is that the SACD sounds more quantised than the original 1981 CD, rather than less: that suggested to me that it was produced from the digital masters ... which would be an entirely pointless exercise that can only add digital mess.

The second clue is that the SACD was produced in 1999, whereas the quote above alludes that the analogue tapes were only re-'discovered' some years later, in perhaps 2001, for the 2002 "State of Wonder" re-issue.

The third clue is from the track timings which vary slightly:

Track 16
A: 1981 DDD: 5min02secs
B: 1999 SACD: 5min02secs
C: 2002 Analog master: 5min00

Track 25
A: 1981 DDD: 1min44secs
B: 1999 SACD: 1min44secs
C: 2002 Analog master: 1min42

In all cases, the SACD track times match the original DDD recording ... not the State of Wonder analog master track times.

Summary: it seems apparent that this SACD was produced from the 1981 digital master. Given that that recording would be lower-res than CD itself, or little different, this would appear to be an entirely pointless exercise.


I find that the SACD version is more distinct than the 1981 DDD version. Gould's singing is much more noticeable on the SACD, and the various parts/voices are clearer ... but I find the sound to be ... unmistakably ... harsher and more 'quantised' than the DDD version. It is almost as though someone has taken a photographic image, and then adjusted the sharpness on the image ... things are more distinct, but the image is more coarse. And that coarseness is uneven and, to my mind, unpleasant.

I find the old 1981 DDD version is smoother, more analogue sounding, more musical.
And yes - I think the engineers are probably correct: the 2002 version (even when on plain CD, from the analogue master) is even nicer than the 1981 DDD version: smoother again, less harsh, but with perhaps an unfortunate slight loss of dynamic contrast.

If I had to choose one version, I think my first preference would be the "State of Wonder" version, followed closely by the original 1981 DDD version.

As for the SACD ... I think it is everything it is meant to not be: instead of being more natural, it is less natural. Instead of being smooth, it is quantised and discrete. I find it unpleasant. It has no logical rationale for its existence. The fact that it has sold out, and is listed second-hand for unearthly prices, is completely separate. This emperor hath no clothes. If you want the best Gould Goldberg, I am sorry - but it is not the SACD version.

The Best Possible World

Of course, in an ideal world, Sony would take the DSD master of the analogue tapes which they created in 2002 for a "State of Wonder" and put THAT onto SACD ... and that must be the best we can do. THAT has purpose. THAT has meaning. By contrast, what has been produced is almost a con ... it makes no sense, and it is worse than the original. Tra la la. For that, I give the sonics 1 star: the sound is not that bad in any absolute sense, but the sonics deserve 1 star for a flawed and pointless implementation.

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