by Chris Bertram on May 22, 2020

One thing I’ve found a bit more time to do under lockdown is to listen to more music, and on the back of reading Richard Powers’s The Gold Bug Variations, I’ve been listening to different recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations every day. Very calming and sometimes transporting. The trouble is, though, that as someone who likes music, who has read quite a bit about it, who goes to the occasional concert, I am also somewhat unmusical. My attempts in middle-age to learn the piano were not crowned with success and my elderly teacher was really quite vocal in his denunciations of my incompetence. (A welcome side-effect though was that my children have managed to become musicians.) So how, among the bewildering variety of performances on different instruments – all of which are available at the click of a mouse – to pick what is “good” to listen to? How far do you trust the experts and their recommendations? And what if you find yourself liking things that the musically competent condemn and disliking things that they praise as exsquisite. Such are the anxieties of the aesthetic inadequate faced with art and the judgement of the acknowledged cognoscenti.

So what have my listenings prompted so far by way of inexpert conclusions? First, that I am pretty allergic to the sound of the harpsichord — something I knew already — though I accept that you sometimes hear things in the music that you don’t when listening to a piano performace. Second, that neither of the celebrated performances by Glenn Gould really do it for me: the first sounds too dry, in the second I find the humming too distracting. Third, that there is an extraordinary degree of variation in the playing, such that it can seem like different pieces of music are being performed (most obviously in something like Wilhelm Kempff’s ornamentless performance of the Aria as contrasted with most others). Finally, that it turned out to be really important to me how a particular variation (XIII) is performed. Some of the renditions are extraordinarily soulful and affecting and some seem like technical exercises that lack such meaning. For what its worth, I’ve most enjoyed performances by Tatiana Nicolaeva (a concert in Stockholm), by Murray Perahia, and by Maria Tipo. I have on LP or CD the 1955 Gould, a Rosalyn Tureck and the Charles Rosen, but I haven’t revisited the last two yet. What do Crooked Timber readers suggest?



Ed Nixon 05.22.20 at 1:38 pm

You know about the “Art World” right? There is a “Music World” as well; it’s as historically, culturally and socially arbitrary as the Art World. I don’t think you have to apologize — if you agree that’s what you’re doing here — for you opinions and taste. The important thing is that you are engaging with the music and coming to your own conclusions. I’d wager that in six months or a year or 5, your feelings and judgements will be different.

For what it’s worth: the only performance of the Goldberg Variations I listen to is the second Gould. Insofar as there’s humming? It serves to remind me about how great a master Gould was at turning an essentially percussive instrument into something that sings.


Hickory Bow 05.22.20 at 1:55 pm

Wanda Landowska…


David 05.22.20 at 1:59 pm

The live Glenn Gould one.


Hickory Bow 05.22.20 at 2:02 pm

Here is a like to the Landowska…


M Caswell 05.22.20 at 2:03 pm

I’m crazy about Variation 13, too, and find Gould’s ’81 version of it to be the most soulful thing on earth.


JCM 05.22.20 at 2:48 pm

So my background is in some ways inverted. I have a very strong musical background, but I always approach things with a certain level of abstraction, such that I’m much more interested in compositions than in performances, which tbh mostly I barely notice the differences between them (or notice them as musical-value-ly arbitrary). So when asked about the quality of this or that performance, I feel a bit set-upon.

This said, I adore Gould’s 1981 (though plenty of serious people can’t abide it for various reasons), and more recently Jean Rondeau’s version ( Now a warning: it’s on harpsichord. But! I thought I was allergic to the harpsichord for a long time too, but I’ve come to think I was actually allergic to (a) early-twentieth-century harpsichords that gave a much more robust – oppressive? – sound than period instruments and/or (b) badly-recorded harpsichords. Rondeau actually did a lot to open the instrument up for me. There’s great space in this version. But I’d certainly be curious for others’ opinions.


Keith 05.22.20 at 2:51 pm

I wish there were a recording of the Goldberg Variations by Dinu Lipatti. What Bach of his out there is all worth listening to. His Chopin waltzes are wonderful too.


marcel proust 05.22.20 at 3:15 pm

Considering the props to Landowska in a consideration of (all the) various recordings of the Goldberg Variations, this seems like the moment to pull out her line, You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.


wooster 05.22.20 at 3:18 pm

I regularly listen to the first Gould Goldbergs and like the second one, too, but it doesn’t move past the 1955 recording. Andras Schiff has done a recording I like a lot too.

Generally transcriptions lose a lot in the translation, but for probably idiosyncratic reasons I adore the Britten Sinfonia performance of the Sitkovetsky transcription of the Goldbergs for strings. I have it on in the car at least once a week.


Roland Stone 05.22.20 at 3:20 pm

András Schiff on Bach is worth listening to. Both his piano performances and his lectures.


novakant 05.22.20 at 3:35 pm

Comparing the two Gould versions (55 and 81) is quite a revelation – I ‘grew up’ with the 81 version and , having listened to it very frequently, the 55 version came as a shock, I think it’s a few minutes shorter actually.

Being used to Gould’s version makes it hard to warm to others but Igor Levit’s interpretation is very good too.


Paul M Gottlieb 05.22.20 at 4:17 pm

The piano is a much more versatile instrument , and allows the individual artist to express their personal vision more clearly. For interpretation, I strongly prefer the slightly slower, more “singing” approach to the technically brilliant. Rosalyn Turek and Simone Dinnerstein both have wonderful recordings


alquitti 05.22.20 at 4:21 pm

Maria Tipo never got the attention she deserved. Her playing of Clementi and Scarlatti is incomparable.


john v 05.22.20 at 4:22 pm

Simone Dinnerstein’s version, on modern piano, was her debut album; Gould pioneered this move as a way to launch a career but it’s still unusual. Her tempi are very much on the slow side and (unlike Gould) she plays all the repeats, so the recording is much longer than his brisk 40-or-so minutes. I haven’t heard Angela Hewitt’s but I like her performances of the English Suites and French Suites. I first heard the Landowska wisecrack as “You play Bach your way and I’ll play him his way,” supposedly directed to the pianist Rosalyn Tureck, whose version on modern piano was the only one of its kind, and the only alternative to Landowska, available when I was a piano student in the 1950s; in that context the Gould (1955) was a bombshell. Finally, Chris’ opinion of the harpsichord as an instrument was shared by Virgil Thomson, who said it sounded to him like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof.


alfredlordbleep 05.22.20 at 4:33 pm

I could give an organ version, but enough of that.
So here’s a plug for more keyboard Bach and the early harpsichord sound:
Sempé’s Chaconne transcription (plucking you down midstream)
(I prefer original violin version fwiw)


Lee A. Arnold 05.22.20 at 4:50 pm

Regarding soul and affect beyond technical exercise — If you get around to Beethoven’s quartets, look for the second set of recordings by the Végh Quartet in the early 1970’s. Almost every review you will find online holds them highest, and justly so. Released on the Auvidis Valois label then reissued by Naïve (Paris). Currently out-of-print but you can find the CDs separately and boxed. Here is a pic of the boxed set:


Roland Stone 05.22.20 at 6:09 pm

@novakant “I ‘grew up’ with the 81 version and , having listened to it very frequently, the 55 version came as a shock, I think it’s a few minutes shorter actually.”

Quite a bit shorter! 38 minutes vs 51.


Andres 05.22.20 at 6:17 pm

I might be committing heresy by straying from the original composition and instrumentation, but one can also check out John Lewis’s various jazz improvisations on Bach’s keyboard music, e.g. . But if one wants to go with the original composition, albeit in piano, I would have to second Andras Schiff as one of the best alternatives.


Peter Dorman 05.22.20 at 7:50 pm

Choice of interpretation is very subjective. Experts can tell you how well a performer conveys their interpretation, but that’s about where expertise ends. (OK, there is expertise about performance history, but that shouldn’t govern what you tend to prefer.)

When dissing harpsichords, consider the huge difference in models. Some are clanky, others resonant and even sensuous. This has a big impact on which recordings I gravitate to. It’s true there is more scope for individual expression with piano, but sometimes less can be more.

On harpsichord I recommend both Koopman and Suzuki and, as a somewhat more intense alternative, Pierre Hantaï. On piano, well there are a ton of excellent choices. Parahia is wonderful, so is Koroliov. Worth plumping for is the three-disc set by Igor Levit that also includes Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Frederic Rzewski’s variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated. But there are multiple, worthwhile choices for those other two (a tsunami for the Diabelli’s) as well.


Bartholomew 05.22.20 at 9:39 pm

Forget about the ‘experts’ – google “Joyce Hatto” for the reason. There are two basic considerations for recorded classical music before you get to anything like ‘interpretation’. They are speed and acoustic. It shouldn’t be so slow that it stops moving, but not so fast that it isn’t clear. Clarity is also crucial in the acoustic – a lot of contrapuntal music is recorded in a reverberant acoustic, which means that the instruments sound beautiful but you can’t hear everything that’s going on in the music. The proportion of records with an over-reverberant acoustic has always amazed me, and I wonder if that’s down to the practicalities of recording – halls and other spaces that are perfect with an audience have too much echo without one. Plus churches seem to be very popular, possible because they are cheap, but most of them have a cavernous echo.

You may know it already, but have you read Douglas Hofstader’s ‘Godel, Escher, Bach’? Lots of interesting analysis of counterpoint and logic. (The presentation is a little bit twee, but the content is great.)


alfredlordbleep 05.22.20 at 11:08 pm

I hesitate to second guess Lee A. Arnold—but having named above one of my two picks for staggering instrumental movements—he entices me to offer the other, Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge and, at that, only if performed by the Quartetto Italiano who make the work even luscious! at moments [13:58–] quite contrary to other interpretations.
(The labeling on this youtube entry is odd. But the sound is better than the other choices I have found there)


david 05.22.20 at 11:39 pm

I’m a know nothing but fwiw I love Schiff playing Bach most.


Alan White 05.22.20 at 11:49 pm

My favorite Bach is Yo-Yo Ma’s 1983 unaccompanied cello album–soothing like no other instrumental rendition of the master.

AS for harpsichord–the only piece I’ve ever made it through is the Addams Family intro. I think it’s not an accident that the word contains “harsh”. And john v above–what a great image!


marcel proust 05.23.20 at 1:51 am

ICYMI: A Jazz Pianist Flips Bach Upside-Down: Dan Tepfer has programmed a computer to invert the “Goldberg” Variations.

Interesting, but left me feeling that JSB knew what he was doing when he did what he did (& writ what he writ).


Ken_L 05.23.20 at 7:57 am

I can thoroughly recommend the version by the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, which is unfortunately not currently available. But here’s another of their classics, loosely based on something by Hildegard von Bingen.


Gav 05.23.20 at 10:36 am

Whatever your views on harpsichords, playing the 2-manual variations on a piano is always going to be a potch, however well performed otherwise.


anonymous 05.23.20 at 12:01 pm

I love all the focus on female pianists!



Keith 05.23.20 at 1:37 pm

Sviatoslav Richter’s Bach recordings are wonderful, but he didn’t record the Goldberg Variations. The 3-disc Bach in the Philips ‘authorised recordings’ of Richter is a favourite of mine. The two Toccata recordings on CD2 are a highlight.


M Caswell 05.23.20 at 2:11 pm

I heard Jon Batiste say in an interview that Bach was the best person at doing a thing, ever- not just the best composer, but the best at doing whatever it is one might do.


Ray Davis 05.23.20 at 2:17 pm

I liked Gould’s first Goldbergs as a prissy kid, but as an elderly gentleman I’m fond of Beatrice Rana’s and Rosalyn Tureck’s. If you find that you enjoy your copy of the latter, you might enjoy the former as well.


Jonathan Goldberg 05.23.20 at 3:47 pm

“Worth plumping for is the three-disc set by Igor Levit that also includes Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Frederic Rzewski’s variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated. But there are multiple, worthwhile choices for those other two (a tsunami for the Diabelli’s) as well.”

Second the motion here; I very much like this set. And while it’s a little off topic,
Piotr Anderszewski’s Diabelli Variations is absolutely marvelous. I don’t believe he’s done the Goldbergs; if I find out he has I’ll buy it instantly. (Despite the net I still buy recordings.) A propos of nothing Anderszewski holds the record for the softest playing I’ve heard live in a hall (Powell Hall in St. Louis, where I live).

I like Gould’s 1981 recording and prefer it to the 1955, although I own both. I am unable to pick a best Goldberg.

For your own pleasure I suggest an attempt to get over your aversion to the harpsichord. You’re missing some treasurable music.


J Pitcher 05.24.20 at 12:09 am

The second Gould recording is wonderful. My current favorite is Koroliov. Here’s variation 25:

I can also recommend Gould’s early recordings of the Partitas, Anner Bylsma for the cello suites, and the recent New Yorker article on Igor Levit.


JakeB 05.24.20 at 12:32 am

I guess I’m Chris’s Bizarroworld version — I don’t listen to Bach on piano, ever, except for the
Glenn Gould variations (I happen to have the later ones). Bach on piano doesn’t sound right to me. That said, I will nevertheless admit to enjoying the disco version of Jesu. But as for the Goldberg variations, I admire Landowska a lot but I particularly like Jory Vinikour’s recordings myself.

I also want to echo Ed’s comment at the very top. My brother knows a lot about wine, and he always says the right wine pairing is the one you enjoy — if you like cabernet with your roast chicken, don’t let anyone make you drink chardonnay or pinot instead of you don’t like them. It seems to me it’s the same with music, as in David McRaney’s delightful take on taste.


bad Jim 05.24.20 at 7:57 am

I think it’s late enough in the thread to note that Bach wasn’t actually popular in his own time; his kids, especially Carl Philip Emmanuel, were more successful, but even they fell out of fashion fairly quickly. Haydn was that good, and eventually people got the hang of Mozart, and then Beethoven brandished his hammer.

All of them had of course studied Bach. Mendelssohn is perhaps primarily responsible for returning him to our attention and elevating him to an exalted status. Well and good, but there’s a reason he isn’t on high rotation on classical stations. In the centuries since we’ve developed additional expectations.


Phil 05.24.20 at 10:56 am

Ornamentation and repeats are the key things for me, or rather lack of. My first Goldberg Variations was a rather austere version* on harpsichord** which had neither; this meant that it was difficult to find my way into***, but spellbinding after the fourth or fifth listen. Charles Rosen sounds fussy in comparison, and don’t get me started on Andras Schiff.

I realise that this may be the least helpful recommendation ever made. (But I have heard good things about Angela Hewitt.)

*Name eludes me. I’m thinking a male Polish name, but I may be misremembering Wanda Landowska; I may even be misremembering Gustav Leonhardt.
**Harpsichord sceptics baffle me. I fell in love with the sound of the harpsichord the first time I heard it on the radio as a child – it sounded literally magical; I couldn’t imagine how it was produced. Discovering that it was just a keyboard took away some of the magic, but only some.
***At one point, on the second or third listen, I suddenly found myself on my feet, and realised that I’d involuntarily got up to take it off. This has only ever happened to me with one other album – cLOUDDEAD’s Ten, which I also grew to love.


Harry 05.24.20 at 9:02 pm

The Perahia recording is the one that will go with me to the desert island (or the nursing home, whichever comes first). I like also Jeremy Denk’s set: well-considered, imaginative, beautifully played. I’ve not yet heard Tharaud’s recording, but his other baroque sets are, I think, truly outstanding.And a word of dissent: I’ve always thought Gould’s sets were much better Gould than Bach.


oldster 05.25.20 at 12:06 pm

Speaking as an old lover of the Gould recordings — each for different reasons, and both together, as a meditation on aging and maturation — and speaking as one who has never liked the sound of a harpsichord, I can say that Wanda Landowska’s version is marvelous, and may make me rethink my antipathy to the instrument.

Her sound is full, resonant and warm, where so often harpsichords sound thin, tinny, and anaemic.

I am grateful to those who recommended her.

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