Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations: The Complete Unreleased 1981 Studio Sessions

In 1955, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould surprised executives at Columbia Masterworks by choosing J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations for his debut recording. His performance was fast and fluid and sparkling and delicious, and it was an astonishingly big seller. In 1981, Gould came full circle and recorded the Goldbergs again. It was his last studio recording. That second attempt could not be more different from the first: relentlessly intellectual, percussive, insistent.

Outtakes from the 1955 sessions were released by Sony in 2018. Late last year, to honor what would have been Gould's 90th birthday, Sony put out a package with a full-color coffee table book and 10 CDs of unreleased outtakes from the 1981 sessions—The Goldberg Variations: The Complete Unreleased 1981 Studio Sessions—with an 11th disc containing the 1981 album. This is not some nice Bach to play in the background during dinner; to reap any reward, the listener must work almost as hard as Gould and producer Sam Carter did. But for anyone with a deep love of Bach, Gould, the piano, or sound recording, there are many fascinating moments.

Some outtakes expose Gould's perfectionism. Track 1 of Disc 2 is labeled "Rehearsal: Variation 11 - 2nd half - Preparation for next take - 2 false starts"; Gould plays eight bars exquisitely, then, when Carter asks him if he's ready, replies, "I'm not [ready], this piece is murder." He tries again, with just as much grace, and is still unhappy.

This collection can improve the listener's ear. Listening with Gould, one starts to hear the tiny inconsistencies, contrapuntal motions a microsecond out of sync, the difference between a convincing cadential landing and a merely serviceable one.

The project is also a lesson in the importance of a well-qualified record producer. Carter, who won a Grammy for his work on this album, knows the score as intimately as Gould. In Variation 25, Carter points out the "sticky" second note in a triplet pattern. In the Aria da capo, he finds the bassline slightly heavier in bars 27 and 28. Examples like this are myriad, and Gould almost always agrees. He obviously trusts Carter, who is savvy enough to repeat one sentence several times each session: "That was very beautiful."

The outtakes offer Bach in two- to four-bar bites, the Goldbergs reduced to their cellular structure. Gould and Carter craft a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle by making 10,000 pieces and discarding 90 percent. Only then can they assemble the puzzle.

The book includes two illuminating essays. The first is by Richard Einhorn, who stood in as producer for a few days while Carter was ill. Einhorn reports some of Gould's recording habits. For example, Gould always did a take to capture the length of silence he wanted between two variations, even if the take wasn't used. The engineer then knew what timing to recreate.

Gould's mathematical approach to the Goldberg movements, new since 1955, affected the studio setup. In Einhorn's words, "he developed a way to interconnect the variations through an elaborate proportional tempo plan; the upcoming variation's tempo would be some ratio of the previous variation." Gould had an engineer play back the end of the previous variation on a spare analog machine then mute it as Gould calculated his new tempo and started to play the next movement. Would Gould have minded letting his dirty takes hang out in public like this? Einhorn thinks not. "Unlike the many other artists who claimed they 'never spliced,' Glenn was very open, even proud, that he edited his recordings."

The second essay is by Robert Russ, the producer of this collection, and Martin Kistner, the mix engineer. They describe the limestone mine in Pennsylvania where the Masterworks archives are housed and the types of material they drew from. The 1981 Goldbergs were recorded digitally—U-matic digital tapes and ¼" digital tapes with a 50.4kHz sampling rate and a bit depth of 16—and backed up with analog reels. Russ and Kistner used the analog sources almost exclusively for this transfer, capturing them digitally at 24/96.

The book is an audiophile candy store. Each CD label looks like the Ampex reel-to-reel tape box from a session, scrawled with a job number and date. There's an array of recording ledgers, cards kept by Columbia to verify daily activity at its legendary 30th Street studios in Manhattan. Shots of the sound room and engineer's desk are nostalgic; the place closed down not long after these sessions.

Musicians will get a thrill from the scans of variations from Gould's editing copy of the Goldbergs. The printed music is nearly obliterated by comments and reminders scribbled violently in black and orange marker.

Each musical moment is surrounded by discussion between Gould and Carter, with occasional interjections by filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon, who was in the studio to shoot footage for a documentary. It's fun to be a fly on the wall, but it's easy to lose focus listening only to the voices and short bursts of music.

That's why the book is essential: It offers a complete transcription of the dialog. You can page through and choose tracks to compare, then read along as you listen. A clean score—marked only with footnotes relating to the transcript—is included on every page to aid in hearing changes from take to take. (Incredibly, the promo copy I received of this high-quality book had pages 133–144 bound in upside-down.)

The way to benefit most from this collection is to pick and choose. Don't try to listen all the way through. It's like a vast museum, where you're better off concentrating on a room each visit, or a few rooms. Or think of it as hundreds of samples of priceless liqueurs: taste small mouthfuls from a few bottles each time. It will always be there waiting for you when you're in the mood to sample more

volvic's picture

I was in high school when this recording came out; a few months (weeks?) later, Glenn Gould died. That was a musical earthquake in Canada that I still vividly remember. The CBC wouldn’t stop hailing Glenn and his last recording. CTV News would have endless video montages of Glenn Gould performing with famous conductors and orchestras worldwide and how he was the most renowned musician next to Oscar Peterson and Leonard Cohen. It is a good recording, not great; I prefer the Perahia version on CBS, but it is iconic and represents a full circle, as mentioned by Anne Johnson, from his 1955 seminal recording. I will buy it as it captures a moment in time on a quirky, influential pianist whose recordings we should not ignore or forget. Such a great write-up from Anne Johnson, well-detailed regarding the outtakes and recording process—a must-purchase.

Anton's picture

First time I played this record, I thought my system developed a weird sort of hum. Turns out, it was Glenn!


I also wanted to buy him an oil can for his stool.

What a great and true 'character!'

volvic's picture

Indeed, Anton, what a character which only adds to the charm of the recording. Also, other hidden anecdotes of how he prepared for recordings or concerts by soaking his elbows in hot water or the finger-tapping drills he employed. One of a kind. I think I will listen to it tonight.

Mike-48's picture

Many musicians have recorded excellent performances of the Goldbergs; Glenn Gould is one of them. Many even have recorded the music on similar instruments to those that existed at the time (hint: not a grand piano tuned in equal temperament).

While I respect what Mr Gould did and enjoy his recordings, I am baffled by the fetishization of this and a few other items (e.g., Kind of Blue), as if music stopped in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, or 80s. Are audiophiles really so un-adventurous?

ChrisS's picture

...recordings are only signposts along our audiophile journey!

You think we have only 5 or 6 records in our collections?

Anton's picture

Given that there are loads of audiophiles here, it would be a reasonable assumption.


You only need one record for that 300,000 dollar turntable to be able to use it!

Heck, one track.

ChrisS's picture

Then we would still need multiple copies as back up to accommodate for wear and tear!

Anton's picture


These were first transcribed in it as if music composition stopped in 1742?

Plenty of new music has been written since. ;-P

These are all part of musical expiration date required.

When was your favorite version of this piece recorded? Did music stop for you after that date?

(As for Kind of Blue: which later version do you prefer? It's not like 'jazz stopped' with KOB, it's just a foundational piece of modern jazz.)

We are lucky now, because we can access so much cool stuff!

johnnythunder1's picture

are sadly overplayed but that doesn't mean they aren't deserving of their classic status - as audiophile classics and as brilliant interpretations. I couldn't listen to Led Zeppelin for almost 10 + years but when I waded back into their catalog it was a revelation. Kind of Blue is at least a worthy demonstration record and a jazz classic ( PS and not my favorite at all - I'd demo a system with Coltrane/Ellington anytime.) I can't say that for a lot of the musical detritus one can hear overplayed at hi-fi shows.

pbarach's picture

Do you think the Model T is unimportant just because millions of other assembly line cars came after it? It was an innovation. When Gould's first Goldberg Variations came out, there were very few recordings, it was about the eighth recording up to that date. His recording was exciting, jazzy, and virtuosic; its predecessors were reverential and heavy. It's not fetishizing to recognize the importance of Gould's 1955 recording. It was only after its release that dozens of other recordings started to come out on a regular basis. Similarly, Kind of Blue pioneered what some call "modal jazz." Not just audiophile but music lovers in general value what the pioneers produced. And I suspect that the issue of this massive set of outtakes appeals much more to pianists and other music lovers than to those wanting high-quality reproduction of a piano (Perahia, for example, has a better-sounding set of Goldbergs).

Mike-48's picture

Do you think the Model T is unimportant just because millions of other assembly line cars came after it?

Sure, it was important. However, Car and Driver doesn't devote space to reviewing it over and over, nor do people think it's the greatest or only good car.

What is "fetishizing" in my mind isn't honoring Gould's achievement but rather re-re-re-re-reviewing the re-re-re-re-releases.

directdriver's picture

The answer is clearly yes.

ChrisS's picture

...the crowd who have listened to "Hotel California" for the millionth time!!

Mike-48's picture

Here are a few versions that are (IMO) more worthy of press coverage than a re-re-re-re-release of Mr Gould's work:

  • Pierre Hantai's first version on Opus 111 (my preference) and second version on Mirare (He may have recorded a third)
  • Robert Hill -- A live recording that includes some improvisations as an introduction. A few flubs, but it has the vigor that a live performance can provide. (BTW, Gould's versions reportedly are pieced together from tiny fragments)
  • Andrew Rangell on Dorian
  • Jory Vinikour on Delos
  • Maria Tipo on EMI

Of course, many more are out there....

pbarach's picture

They publish a few reviews a month. Try other mags if you want expansive coverage of all the Goldbergs on the market. BTW, Gould **chose** to piece together most of his recordings in this manner, but there are plenty of videos showing that this was not because of flawed technique (including a complete video of the Goldbergs from near the end of his life. P.S. Hill's is my fave on harpsichord.

Mike-48's picture

No, of course not.

It's because they review so few items that I'd hope they'd use that space on something more interesting than yet another review of Gould's Goldbergs. It's not like the set is unknown to anyone with an interest in the music.

ChrisS's picture

teched58's picture

If one wants a more fully rounded picture of Gould the person check out the 2009 documentary, "Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould."

Here is the link to the IMBD listing:

It really is quite revelatory regarding his personal tastes and his unusual affair with Cornelia Foss, the wife of conductor Lukas Foss. (Unusual because he was connected to Foss, and Cornelia remained married to Foss notwithstanding. As they say, Ah, show(biz) people.)

The documentary is easily accessible via a quick Google search.