LOOKING AT THE GOLDBERGS, Part III: Tim Page on Glenn Gould

In 2007, author Evan Eisenberg wrote in Slate Magazine 
"The year was 1955. Three things happened: Albert Einstein died, and Glenn Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations. It is difficult to describe the impact of the second event, in part because I was a fetus at the time. (The third event, of course, was my birth.) But I will try. For those of us—beatniks, philistines, fetuses—who thought of classical music as something powdered and periwigged, that slab of vinyl struck with the force of a meteor. The stegosaurs who played Bach as if he were Lawrence Welk sniffed the heady, pomade-purged air and keeled, metaphorically, over. The Cretaceous Age of Music had ended. The Age of Gould had begun."

For any pianist who has grown up in this Age of Gould, his recordings of the Goldberg Variations assert a dual force: both inspiration and obstacle in their greatness and completeness. None of us who tangle with the Goldbergs can imagine an understanding of this musical monument that does not hold Gould’s influence at its very center. His Goldbergs represent a standard, a benchmark, a sort of magnificent elephant in the room. I’ve spoken in this space with colleagues Simone Dinnerstein and Dan Tepfer about our respective challenges in approaching, assessing, and finding our ways around the elephant. It's due to my own life-long fascination with the beast  - a near addiction to the 1955 recording that started when I was a baby on my father's lap - that I've taken the wonderfully rewarding journey to my latest recording project 13 WAYS of Looking at the Goldbergs.

Even for Gould himself, the 1955 recording of the Goldbergs, released as his major-label debut at the age of 22 and an immediate career-launching, reputation-defining success, assumed a presence of somewhat elephantine proportions, which he eventually confronted with the absolute musical revisions of his 1981 recording, released just months before he died. The scope of the internal conflict, evolution and transformation of Gould’s relationship to the Goldbergs is captured in a 1981 interview with Tim Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic and writer, and editor of The Glenn Gould Reader. The conversation is a scripted dialogue written by Gould, more of a radio drama really, recorded in a marathon midnight session in a Toronto studio. The conversation offers a fascinating glimpse into Gould’s restless, flexible mind, and a unique opportunity to hear him speak about the personal and musical variations behind his two recordings of the Goldbergs. The complete interview can be heard on the three-CD set A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981 (Sony, 2002).

I was fortunate to speak with Tim Page (himself the owner of a restless, flexible and fascinating mind) about Glenn Gould the man and the musician, about his artistic interests and his challenges feared and faced, about the critical re-evaluation of his body of work since his death, about his two iconic recordings of the Goldbergs, and about the lasting footprint of that magical, marvelous elephant.


Back to Bach

Now that we've entered the Bach birthday month, I'm heading back into my series on the Goldberg Variations; conversations about the Goldbergs with Christopher Taylor and Tim Page on Glenn Gould coming soon, plus posts from NPR Music's upcoming feature on the Goldbergs.

It's a gray, rainy day here in California, and this feels like a wonderfully introspective piece to share today: Glenn Gould playing Variation 13, captured in four different recordings from 1954, '55, '59 and '81.



A YEAR WITH LISZT: Garrick Ohlsson

In 2010-'11, if you were a world-renowned and much-in-demand Chopin pianist, you were very busy touring the world playing all-Chopin recitals in celebration of the Chopin Bicentennial year. In 2011-'12, if you are a world-renowned and much-in-demand Liszt pianist, you are very busy touring the world playing all-Liszt recitals, in celebration of the Liszt Bicentennial.

photo: Paul Body
If you are Garrick Ohlsson, both of the above are true.

Mr. Ohlsson has survived a Chopin Year that took him from San Francisco to Warsaw, with many stops in between, playing the eloquent yet muscular Chopin for which he's been known and loved ever since he won the International Chopin Competition in 1970. 

Along the way, he committed to a full-on exploration of another great passion, the music of Liszt, in time to celebrate the bicentenary of Liszt’s birth just one year later. And in a year that has many pianists beating a path to Liszt, his particular journey into Lisztian territory is being hailed for the "passion and force of his interpretation, enhanced by his clear voicing of inner lines and the dramatic juxtaposition of contrasting elements" (The New York Times).

Ohlsson's Liszt recital, which he brings to the UW Presidents Piano Series, Seattle on Wednesday and the  Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis on Friday, is sort of a Best Of collection of the composer's most profound and remarkable piano works, with the magnificent B Minor Sonata at its center, a thoughtfully curated portrait of the many sides of Liszt, from the dramatic to the mystical to the athletically virtuosic. We talked about channeling Liszt, memorizing Hamlet, and  about how, sometimes, size matters: