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In the recently released Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations – The Complete Unreleased Recording Sessions, you can hear the restless energy of a perfectionist.

Over four days in June 1955, Gould recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Columbia Records 30th Street studio in Manhattan. The temperature of the studio had to be precisely regulated. The piano had to be set at a particular height. Gould wanted a small rug for his feet. On hand was a generous supply of arrowroot biscuits.

His fastidiousness paid off.

Anthony Tommasini points out that the release “turned what had previously been considered a lengthy piece for harpsichord, of interest only to Bach specialists, into a runaway hit.”

It also made Gould a classical superstar, soon to be the most celebrated musician of his generation. “That nut’s a genius,” Leonard Bernstein said.

I’ve probably listened to Gould’s Goldberg Variations a hundred times. His artistry goes beyond technical proficiency. I love these pieces for their brisk pace, crystalline clarity, and purity of expression.

As Allan Kozinn noted, the most fascinating moments in the new release take place when Gould stops the recording session to refine his playing.

At times, Gould recorded a variation or a section ten times or even more. “Sometimes, he stopped between takes to drill a short passage, playing it over and over until he was satisfied,” Kozinn writes. “Elsewhere he might focus on a bass line without the rest of the counterpoint, altering the articulation until he gets the clarity and phrasing he wants.”

These moments show Gould’s determination to make every note perfect.

Glenn Gould’s genius was reflected in his relentless commitment to the music, the vision he labored over lovingly and neurotically.

We can’t all be obsessive – at least not all the time. But public speakers can focus and pay attention to the things that really matter, like tone of voice, phrasing, and the pauses and pacing that get it just right.

Gould’s quest for perfection can be seen in these two short documentaries:

Glenn Gould: Off the Record

Glenn Gould: On the Record

 

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