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The Boston Globe

Arts

Classical Notes

How Glenn Gould reinvented Bach

Our view of a composer is a mosaic, whose tiles are the insights drawn from hearing dozens, perhaps hundreds, of performances — in concert, through headphones, in our memory. Every musician — every good one, anyway — adds to this composite picture. But almost never does any single artist simply take over the entire perception of a composer’s oeuvre, permanently altering it for both us and future listeners.

One of those very rare instances occurred in 1955, when the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Released early in 1956, the LP exploded on the music world: It wasn’t simply a new take on what was at the time an infrequently heard work, it changed the entire set of expectations with which listeners approached Bach’s keyboard music. Much more Bach would follow, especially when Gould decided, in 1964, to stop performing live and concentrate exclusively on recording. Of course, he played and recorded other composers’ music as well, often with disastrous results (See: Chopin, F., Piano Sonata No. 3). But it was with Bach that his name was always linked, right up until his final, very different recording of the Goldberg Variations, in 1981. He died in 1982.

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