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This lavishly produced box set containing seven CDs, a heavyweight vinyl LP and 280-page hardback book is the latest Gould release from Sony Classical, complementing the gargantuan 81-CD Glenn Gould Remastered (888750322227) released in 2015.

The presentation here is impeccable: the hardback book opens to reveal four discs labelled to look like the recording’s original reel-to-reel studio tapes, while the back cover holds three further discs, including a conversation between Gould and the American music critic Tim Page recorded in 1982, the last year of the pianist’s life. The book itself provides a comprehensive a record of the June 1955 studio sessions, containing everything from the tracking sheets and cutting cards to Gould’s original contract and biography produced by Columbia. A series of short essays and interviews are accompanied by dozens of photos of the pianist, some previously unpublished, and there’s even a complete score of Bach’s music so listeners can follow as they listen.

The transfer quality of the sessions is excellent, and will be a joy for any student of Bach’s music, Gould’s performance style or the techniques of mid-20th century recording. In take after take, we hear Gould experimenting with tempo, articulation and phrasing to arrive at his final interpretation. Perhaps surprisingly, given the reputation he gained in his later years for piecing together recordings from multiple takes, many of the tracks here feature long sections of music. As Kevin Bazzana explains in his introductory essay ‘Glenn Gould – Birth of a Legend’: ‘Most variations appeared in the final edit as complete takes (in three cases, Take 1); only six variations were spliced together from two different takes or inserts. Still, it is already clear that the “cinematic” process of assembling discrete takes, remakes and inserts into an organic whole – for many artists an alien, disorienting, even immoral process – came naturally to Gould.’

Yet for all the fascinating insights this release yields, listening to so many ‘failed’ takes can be a frustrating experience. In many cases, the tapes were stopped mid-conversation, cutting off Gould’s exchanges with his producer Howard Scott. (Gould was not yet a ‘legend’, so why waste valuable tape on his eccentric utterances?) This is a real shame, as it is likely that Gould’s commentary would have added much to our understanding of his creative process. One notable exception, where the tape was left running to capture Gould’s words, occurs during the session for Variation 30. He suddenly heads off at a tangent, explaining to Scott: ‘I have a quodlibet of my own which came to me in the bathtub the other night. One of these times, I’m going to be invited to give a concert on the 4th of July, I am sure. And when I do, I’ve figured out that by leaving out the repeats in The Star-Spangled Banner and starting your entry at the 13th bar of God Save the King, then playing God Save the King over again and altering the harmony in the second half of the King to modulate to the supertonic region, it has the most marvellous effect.’ Gould proceeds to demonstrate this feat of zany, recherché humour, in a vignette that perfectly illuminates the workings of his curious mind.

This is the high point of the sessions, which are ultimately too fragmentary and repetitive to warrant sustained listening. There is a reason, after all, why Gould rejected his earlier takes, and why the editing process played such an important role in crafting the final product. ‘The secret of being a bore is to say everything’ wrote Voltaire, and the wisdom of this statement is certainly borne out here. There is such a vast amount of material from Gould’s 1955 Goldberg sessions that a stronger curatorial approach is needed to make it interesting.

A much smaller collection released by Sony in 2002 did just that: Glenn Gould: A State of Wonder (Sony Classical Legacy SM3K 87703) comprises Gould’s 1955 and 1981 versions of the Goldberg Variations, plus a third disc featuring the pianist’s conversation with Tim Page and 12 minutes of studio outtakes from the 1955 sessions. Gould’s comedic quodlibet is the centrepiece of the outtakes, and works brilliantly as a standalone excerpt. Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations – The complete unreleased recording sessions June 1955 may appeal to Gould fanatics and completists, but for the general listener A State of Wonder offers a more engaging record of Gould’s legacy.

OWEN MORTIMER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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