Glenn Gould in the recording studio as a young man

The late great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould made two significant and highly-acclaimed recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the first in 1955 when he was just 22, the second a quarter of a century later in 1981 when he was nearing the end of his life. Both recordings stand as benchmarks and both offer fascinating insights into the music and Gould’s approach to it. These recordings have never been out of print – a mark of their status and the respect they command in the canon of Bach recordings. The 1955 recording was Gould’s debut disc for Columbia Records and was something of a risk for the record company since at the time the Goldbergs were regarded as one of the obscurities of the repertoire, while the performer was unknown. The 1955 recording is often described as a young man’s recording, full of the exuberance of youth in its extreme tempi and avoidance of some of the repeats. In fact, the swiftness of the playing is partly due to the constraints of the vinyl format and the need to bring the recording within a certain time-frame. No matter: Gould’s Goldbergs became an instant hit, launching both pianist and the work, which entered the standard repertoire of pianists and remains widely performed and recorded to this day.

Aria from the Goldberg Variations – Glenn Gould, 1955

When Gould re-recorded the Goldbergs in 1981, recording technology had advanced considerably (stereo and Dolby surround sound had been invented and digital recording/editing could be used for mainstream recordings). This gave the artist greater flexibility, with the possibility of multiple takes to create a recording with which he was entirely satisfied. Gould had been unhappy with the tempi in the first recording and felt there was no sense of cohesion or narrative flow between the individual variations. The 1981 recording is undoubtedly that of a mature artist: the tempi are thoughtful, almost autumnal, and there is much greater expression throughout the variations. There is elegance and nobility rather than swooning, nervous energy.

Aria from the Goldberg Variations – Glenn Gould, 1981

Gould’s two recordings of the Goldberg Variations demonstrate something profound – that two different approaches to the same notes say a great deal about how one ages and how tastes change over time.

The weather changes. The admirable impetuousness of youth usually yields to a more considered view

– John Humphreys, concert pianist

A recording is a snapshot in time, yet preserved forever, unlike a live performance which is a one-off, never to be repeated. Many artists are dissatisfied with their recordings because they know that they never play the same thing in exactly the same way and no sooner has a recording come out, than they wish they had done things differently. As amply demonstrated by Gould’s Goldbergs, the passage of time allows one to reflect on one’s repertoire and how one plays it. One’s perception of the music changes with time and so it makes perfect sense to re-record from a different, more mature perspective.

Other notable “repeat” recordings include Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven Piano Sonatas. Barenboim was a young man when he recorded his first cycle (between 1966 and 1969), and like Gould’s 1955 Goldbergs, there’s an excitement and spontaneity in these readings. He re-recorded the sonatas for Deustche Grammophon in 1981-84 and two decades later Decca released the audio soundtracks of DB’s live performances of the sonatas (performed and filmed in Berlin’s Staatsoper unter den Linden and issued by EMI on DVD). Like Gould’s Goldbergs, these make for fascinating listening, offering one the opportunity to chart the performer’s artistic and interpretative development and maturity, resulting in new or renewed approaches to the music.

That artists choose to re-record works is a mark of how one develops as an artist: one does not and should not stand still artistically. Our responses to our music change with time, experience, growing maturity, and when we return to music we should always find something new within it. For some musicians, capturing the artistic changes that happen across their careers is an important goal and re-recording certain works is a way of marking these changes. In other instances, musicians respond to pressures from a record label: when an artist moves to a new label, they may be encouraged to re-record works  to match the success of a previous label.

The best re-recordings don’t recreate, they reinvent. And while listening to them, we try to discover what motivations and inspirations stand behind them.

Belgian instrument maker Chris Maene and renowned conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim are turning the piano world upside down with a groundbreaking new concert grand

Daniel Barenboim is not only a guest conductor of the New Year’s Concert in Vienna, the Ambassador of Music Fund, driving force of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (where young talents from Palestine, Israel and other Arabic countries play together in peace), but also a celebrated pianist. Together with Belgian piano maker Chris Maene, he has conceived and developed a brand new instrument that may change the piano-world as we know it today.

Today, modern pianos have become highly standardized. There haven’t been many fundamental changes to the design of the modern piano in the last 100 years. Furthermore, it has been more than 80 years since a concert grand piano was built in Belgium. At a time when there are fewer piano factories in Europe, as pianos are now mostly built in Asia, Chris Maene is investing in the development, research and construction for this concert grand for the 21st century.

Photo: Chris Maene

Barenboim discussed his idea with Steinway & Sons who introduced him to Chris Maene, who had also wanted to create a brand new instrument inspired by the past. The two maestri were able to combine their respective musical and technical expertise to begin work on their shared vision. Just 15 months ago, Barenboim’s personal technician Michel Brandjes tested several 19th-century historic grand pianos from Chris Maene’s collection and some of the remarkable replicas made by him. His findings and reflections on the sound and technical aspects of the instruments were discussed with Barenboim who then commissioned Maene to work a detailed concept for the new instrument which was then developed, constructed, tested and revealed today.

Daniel Barenboim says:

“The transparency and tonal characteristics of the traditional straight-strung instruments is so different from the homogenous tone produced by the modern piano across its entire range. The clearly distinguishable voices and colour across its registers of Liszt’s piano inspired me to explore the possibility of combining these qualities with the power, looks, evenness of touch, stability of tuning and other technical advantages of the modern Steinway. I am so delighted to have worked with Chris Maene, who had the same dream and I must pay tribute to his incredible technical expertise and his deep respect for both tradition and innovation. I must also thank Steinway & Sons, for bringing us together and for delivering key components for our new instrument, thus enabling a perfect match of the traditional qualities and modern advantages.”

Chris Maene says:

“All my life I have been building replicas of legendary historic instruments. But for many years I have also been dreaming of building a new type of concert grand. It has always surprised me how the fantastic and unique sound diversity of the grand pianos of the 19th century disappeared. By the end of the 19th century many piano builders tried to copy the success of Steinway & Sons. In this process, they all ignored the straight-strung grand pianos with their unique sound characteristics. As a result, the 20th century offered us very similar instruments in regards of construction and sound. Therefore it has never been my goal to build another copy of a Steinway, but rather to make a different instrument in which I could incorporate all my expertise about building historic instruments. It has been a true honour to be able to work with Maestro Daniel Barenboim. I hold the Maestro in very high regard and was delighted to discover our mutual interest in straight-strung pianos. His input, confidence and order made it possible to build this new instrument: a concert grand for the 21st century. For me it is truly a dream come true.”

Chris Maene and Daniel Barenboim unveiled the new instrument at the Royal Festival Hall, London today, ahead of Daniel Barenboim’s Schubert Piano Sonatas recital series there.


(source: press release)