catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Midweek YouTube

with 17 comments

And now for something a little different. I haven’t YouTubed any classical music so far. That’s because I have much narrower tastes in classical music, basically restricted to a handful of composers. And on a fundamental level it doesn’t move me as much.

This isn’t true of Bach, the one composer I keep returning to. Maybe because I think he would be playing jazz if he were alive today, and if he came across the claptrap that passes for a lot of contemporary musical composition. And he was known to be a great improviser in his day, if this wasn’t already evident from the superhuman speeds at which he was able to rise to musical challenges (e.g. his ‘Musical offering’ in response to Frederick the Great’s challenge -see Evening in the palace of Reason). Not surprisingly a lot of jazz musicians have affinity for his work. The much underrated (in my view) Modern Jazz Quartet incorporated a lot of Bach allusions and variations into their work. Keith Jarrett has tried his more than able hands at the Goldberg Variations. And how many other composers get written about in a book that is mostly about Artificial Intelligence?

Below the fold, my favourite interpreter of Bach, Glenn Gould who is himself quite a character and one of the most enigmatic figures in classical music, plays the Goldberg Variations Aria and vars. 1-7 (incidentally both Glenn Gould and Keith Jarrett are incessant hummers and have other performance eccentricities though this doesn’t bother me in the least). As you will see, his enthusiasm with the music is quite infectious. Don’t expect a staid concert hall recording (though this version is slower than the famous one he recorded when he was much younger).

Written by Admin

November 30, 2006 at 12:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

17 Responses

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  1. Here’s a great rendition of some Bach.


    November 30, 2006 at 4:42 am

  2. rog

    November 30, 2006 at 8:29 am

  3. Thanks muchly – an extraordinary clip. Mind you, those early Gould recordings have always been amongst my favourites.

    derrida derider

    November 30, 2006 at 10:48 am

  4. No comment unless Jason will permit me me a savage one.


    November 30, 2006 at 11:05 pm

  5. comment away, Rob.

    I know some people don’t like Glenn Gould, so what? the man was a genius, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

    Jason Soon

    November 30, 2006 at 11:08 pm

  6. There are two problems with the interpretation evident in the clip. The first is that Bach did not write this sublime work — possibly the greatest piece ever composed for the keyboard — for the piano. He wrote it for the harpsichord, or its precursors, which created sound by plucking the strings rather than striking them. The sound he wrote for was metallic and precise, rather than emotional and diffuse, which is what you get from a piano. Playing Bach on the piano yet retaining the precision of the composer’s sonic intent is incredibly difficult. Andras Schiff, Angela Hewitt and Murray Perahia — all stellar pianists — have attempted it but without real success (IMHO).

    Gould is woolly and diffuse in his interpretation, revelling in the sonarities and resonances of the piano instead of reigning them in, which is the only way it can work on the piano.. The clarity o f the counterpoint is lost because of the lack of precision. It’s an emotional reading, yes: but the work is not supposed to be; it is beyond emotion, reaching into a white world somewhere beyond.

    His early Bach was better, although his first, most famous recording of the Variations was ridiculous — it was merely a speed trial. His partitas and sonatas are justly famed for the extraordinary prestidigitation, but in the end, he sounds like an animated puppet, with a sense of the architecture but not of the music’s reach into the infinite. Bach’s music is often called ‘mathematical’, and it’s meant to be a derogatory description. But like mathematics at its purest Bach’s music takes us to the heart of humankind’s intellectual endeavour.

    Properly played, as by Bob van Asperen or Karl Richter (in their different ways), the Goldberg Variations stands as a testament to the endless ingenuity of the human intellect: its capacity for endless invention, its ability to construct and contemplate paradoxes and discontinuities that it nonetheless can seamlessly dissolve. Listening to all the Variations, you are quite simply dazzled to discover what Bach can do with a simple aria and its grand, down-striding bass. It seems beyond mere mortals to do it. A religious friend of mine once told me he regarded Bach’s keyboard music as proof positive of the existence of God.

    In other words, Gould takes the wrong approach on both fronts: the wrong kind of sound (resonant, not precise), and the wrong kind of approach (emotional — not to say self-indulgent) rather than austere. Bacchus, not Apollo, one is tempted to say.


    December 1, 2006 at 10:11 pm

  7. None of what you’ve said made any sense to me, Rob. I preferred Yobbo’s guitar clip, because the music made sense. Maybe you need a special sort of education to appreciate classical music – one I never received, and one (at 34) I’m unlikely to every appreciate. I know Mises once argued that opera should be subsidized by the state.

    Not for this little black duck. Bored me to tears. Give me Metallica and System of a Down any day.


    December 1, 2006 at 10:48 pm

  8. Rob
    I take your point about Bach as mathematical music. And as you say that’s not a derogatory thing – that’s a good thing. I don’t really feel that Glenn Gould’s playing detracts from that, but rather complements it. I’ve heard Angela Hewitt play Bach too but frankly I prefer Gould. I’ve never really thought of Gould’s playing as wooly. Maybe I’m less sensitive to the timbre than you are.

    And incidentally, great jazz is ‘mathematical’ in the same way as Bach- it’s all about exploring the possibilities of the architecture of the notes in the most elegant way. To me, Miles Davis’ crisp, minimalist and elegant trumpet solos have that same kind of mathematical precision and imagination, as do Louis Armstrong’s and the mature Chet Baker. So is Thelonius Monk on piano . .

    Jason Soon

    December 1, 2006 at 10:59 pm

  9. Yep, philistine and proud of it, people…


    December 1, 2006 at 11:04 pm

  10. Jason, I too would prefer Gould (at his best) in Bach to Hewitt. Keith Jarrett recorded a memorable version of the Goldbergs (on the harpsichord) not least because, as you say, the coolness of jazz works very well with Bach. Wynton Marsalis is another who very successfully straddles both genres.Yet I can’t see rock musicians ever being able to do it. (That’s my kind of philistinism showing, sl. )


    December 1, 2006 at 11:45 pm

  11. I was 15 before I first heard a piece of classical music, Rob. My first comment? ‘Geez, that’s boring’.


    December 2, 2006 at 12:15 am

  12. Do you remember what piece it was, sl?


    December 2, 2006 at 12:38 am

  13. No idea, Rob. There were violins and pianos in it, though. Remember at that age I was bright but completely without ‘culture’. Culture was something other people had.

    I’ve since learned about Philip Glass, and I have to say I like Glassworks.


    December 2, 2006 at 12:45 am

  14. Glassworks? OUCH! (Sorry!)


    December 2, 2006 at 11:17 am

  15. For the most part, Rob, I’m a Motley A. Headbanger, and know diddly squat about culture. I used to pretend I did, in order to ‘fit in’ with the Yarts crowd. Not any more. I wear my philistinism with pride. That means I own up to liking lambrusco, listen to heavy metal, never go to the theatre (it bores me rigid) and watch lots of sport.

    I do read plenty of books, though, and take the time to travel to lots of places.


    December 2, 2006 at 12:13 pm

  16. Skeptic, as a fellow Metallica fan, let me tell you that theatre doesn’t have to be boring. There is some great stuff out there, non-poncy contemporary pieces with great scripts, lots of suspense and large dollops of humour.

    Also, classical music can be adapted for a headbanger’s sensibilities. Check this one out:


    December 2, 2006 at 1:25 pm

  17. That clip is fecking awesome! It’s so good I’ve emailed the link to my niece (who is genuinely musical – studying sound engineering at the Conservatorium). She’ll enjoy it.


    December 2, 2006 at 1:58 pm

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