Sony Classical asked me if I was interested in reviewing a comprehensive set of Glenn Gould's seminal recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. There have been quite a few 'collections' over the years as Sony cash in on one of its most valuable classical assets. As recording technology improves, especially digital restoration, out come the reissues. Being a huge fan of Gould, 'sure', I said, expecting the typical chubby box of remastered (yet again) CDs.
What I received at the office was a large package from Sony Classical with a very heavy box inside. I was surprised and thrilled at the same time. Next time, I'll read the email requests more carefully. The box was so heavy, I thought it was a set of LPs. It's actually 7 CDs, a large poster, the original LP in a new, 180g pressing, and a book (280 page, hard cover, coffee table book with 45 newly discovered photos). The majority of the weight comes from the very comprehensive book discussing the recording legacy of this 1955 mono release in great detail. Seemingly, no information is left out. We even see how much Gould (and Steinway) were paid for each side of the LP. Charming.
There's not much to write that hasn't already been written in volumes about this seminal Columbia recording. Recorded over four days when Gould was a mere pup at 22 at Columbia's 30th St. Studios in NYC, his debut recording has bested all comers for over half a century. For good measure he re recorded the Goldberg Variations for CBS in stereo, which is also a fabulous performance. But there is a natural and organic style that permeates the original that's tough to beat. (When can you say that a mordent brings you to your knees?). Sony's latest piano wunderkind, Igor Levit comes close in a superb 2016 recording, but Gould/mono always call me back.
Early morning over coffee, an afternoon session of serious listening for both music and gear review, dinner music, or, best of all, late night listening over (good) headphones while the house is sleeping, Gould's Goldberg Variations never cease to amaze or give the required effect. The recording ranks up there with the very best in historic phonographic recordings--Brain/Mozart Horn Concertos, Schnabel/Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Callas/Tosca, and Solti's Ring. Among others, legends and heartbreakers, all.
So, it with great pleasure I report to you that Sony's gift to Gould/Bach completists is one for the ages. I've reviewed a lot of reissued box sets over the years--some great, some, real plonkers--this ranks up there with Solti's Esoteric Wagner/Ring CD box set (priced significantly higher than this Sony release, at USD$1500!) and The Beatles in Mono (LP set) for detail, care in sound reproduction, and presentation. Here, we even get a large black and white poster and the original art work on the LP and the CD. In addition, we get 5 CDs of recorded out takes with copious corresponding notes in the book (with score). The discussions between Gould (with his high pitch, nasal voice) and his producer Howard Scott and engineer Fred Plaut are endlessly fascinating. The takes they choose for the final cut are interesting. You'll discover very quickly that Gould's chops are unreal. 'Wonderful, wonderful' is heard many times, as take after take is, to these ears, perfection.
If you're poking around the internet for pricing, I've seen the box as low as CAD$110. Which is a steal for 7CDs, a 180g LP, a coffee table book and a poster. Let alone the subject.
The sound is not the issue, here. History is. And audiophiles should be encouraged to listen to this set for the musical value and the legacy. We've known for yonks that mono can sound brilliant, as it surely does here. Hearing the recorded voice along with great music should be considered for show demos. What are you waiting for? Very highly recommended.
Sony Classical website
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 The complete recording sessions June 1955
Aria, Takes 1 6
Variation 1, Takes 1 3; Remakes Takes 1 13
Variation 2, Takes 1 13
Variation 3, Takes 1 3
Variation 4, Takes 1 10
Variation 5, Takes 1 9
Variation 6, Takes 1 16
Variation 7, Takes 1 5; Remakes Takes 1 10
Variation 8, Takes 1 3
Variation 9, Takes 1 10
Variation 10, Takes 1/2
Variation 11, Takes 1 8
Variation 12, Takes 1 18
Variation 13, Take 1 5
Variation 14, Takes 1/2
Variation 15, Takes 1 6
Variation 16, Takes 1/2; Insert 1, Takes 1 3
Variation 17, Takes 1 4; Insert 1, Takes 1 5
Variation 18, Takes 1 11
Variation 19, Takes 1 5
Variation 20, Takes 1 4
Variation 21, Takes 1 6; Insert 1 Takes 1/2
Variation 22, Takes 1 4; Insert 1
Variation 23, Takes 1 11; Remake Takes 1 3
Variation 24, Takes 1 12; Insert 1 Takes 1 4
Variation 25, Takes 1/2
Variation 26, Takes 1 3; Insert 1 Take 1
Variation 27, Takes 1 4
Variation 28, Takes 1 4
Variation 29, Take 1
Variation 30, Takes 1 3
Aria, Remake Takes 1 12
Glenn Gould Discusses his Performances of the Goldberg Variations with Tim Page
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 final edit
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 final edit (180 g vinyl)