Sunday, April 22, 2007


Many pieces of music only exist in one form – the First recording is the Last recording as well. Just think of the Rolling Stones “Satisfaction”. I’m not a pop-geek, but I’ve never heard another version (other than live Stones’ Concert versions) of that song.

The first five notes “De De, De De Deeh” are simply “IT”. In my humble opinion, Keith Richards would have gained immortality if those were the only five notes he ever wrote. To realise the power of that simple intro, have you ever measured the time it takes for a dance floor to fill completely when the DJ plays them? It’s measured in milliseconds.

But other pieces of music don’t work like that. I have been thinking about this after scribbling down some thoughts earlier today about Jacqueline Du Pre, and her playing of the Elgar Concerto.

Classical Music, far more than most Pop Music, almost lives on the interpretation. The music exists as the written score but it is only relatively recently that we know how the composer thought the music should be played. We had to wait until the likes of people like Rachmaninov and Elgar actually recorded their own works, to hear what they wanted the music to sound like. And even then, we may not have been hearing it at its best.

There is a simple view that, once the music exists, the maximisation of its performance impact usually lies in the hands of someone else. And, as is the way of things, people have for the length of recording history, taken several shots at recording a piece of music. This is all bound up with the issue that was bugging me about the Du Pre Elgar Concerto. Her version, brilliant though it is, is not the only way it can be played, and we must all keep an open mind on this.

Other pieces of music, where there is not so dominant a recording, often have twenty or thirty recordings available, and it is simply up to the listener to decide which is the best. There are many occasions where you have to choose between several versions, made at differing times in one interpreter’s life. At least this means that there is no one “Best” version of a piece.

Take an example. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I have four versions of this, one by Angela Hewitt (Brilliant!), another by Jacques Loussier (Curate’s Eggish), and two by Glenn Gould.

The Glenn Gould versions are the ones I want to refer to here. He made Version 1 in 1955, as a 23 year old. As a virtuoso piece, he brings Bach into the Twentieth Century with an amazing display of pianistic fireworks, which, being only nine the time of its release I was not aware, set the music world alight at the outstanding virtuosity of the performance.

As a person, Gould was an utterly outstanding pianist and a real eccentric, to boot. A Canadian, he recorded about 80 different pieces, but soon in his career, he gave up live performance, and only met his public via the recording studio. He had an absolutely individual take on whatever he played, and he was one of those rare artists whom, I suspect, you either revered or hated. His Beethoven Sonatas, I have to say, are a taste I have not yet acquired, but you simply cannot ignore the man. He thought the music through from his own ruthlessly logical point of view – if you liked it, then Great, if you didn’t well, you didn’t. His Bach however is out of the top of the Top Drawer.


Note - The You Tube snippet above can be activated by clicking on the centre button, waiting for "Loading" to complete then pressing on the "Play" symbol in the bottom left hand corner.

If you want to hear and see Glenn Gould playing the 1981 Goldberg Variations, go to Google Video, search for Glenn Gould, and click on the 47 minute version of the Goldberg Variations - it's about the third one down. Quite amazing!

Although he hardly ever re-recorded anything, he made an exception with the Goldberg Variations, and in 1981, he went back into the recording studios, and did them again. Sadly, elliptically, and rather spookily, just after he recorded them again, he died.

To say the two versions were “Chalk and Cheese” hardly does the chalk or the cheese justice. The differences are immense. The first Aria takes almost twice as long in the 1981 version as the 1955 recording. The second one treats Bach as a human being, in places almost as a Romantic, whereas the first is almost fiendishly mechanical in its approach. Strangely, the later version seems to take far longer than the original, but, when you take out the beginning and ending Arias, and the 13 or so repeats which Gould observes in the 1981 version and not in the 1955 version, it actually takes a broadly similar overall time. What does come across in the 1981 recording is the Homogeneity of the work. The earlier one sounds like 30 almost unrelated variations – the latter version Seems all of a One.

There is a 3 disc set issued by Sony which contains both versions remastered, as well as a very revealing interview with Gould explaining why he felt the need to change his interpretation so radically. Quite enthralling, and if you ever want to understand why people change their views about a piece of music over time, just listen to that interview.

As I am sure you will realise, I think the 1981 version is streets ahead of the original 1955 version, but the point I’m trying to make here is that nothing is fixed in musical interpretation. Its very ephemeral nature is one of its most endearing features.

Even in Pop Music, you can see similarities. I happen to think Mark Knopfler is a truly gifted song writer and guitarist. He wrote a simple 3-minute song called “Romeo and Juliet”, released on an LP (Yes, it’s that old!) called “Making Movies”. Later on, particularly in his live performances, he built that song into the set, but, by the time he played these concerts, it had been totally changed from a 3 minute, bounce-along pop song, to a 12 minute long, slowly, wistfully and hauntingly performed work, which was so, so much more appropriate to the sentiments he was singing about. It had mood, presence, atmosphere, and to me became a great song when performed like that. Same lyrics, Same melody, but Lordy, Lordy, what a difference in impact.


By the way, the brilliant Saxophone solo is by Chris White - it lasts almost as long as the original song on "Making Movies"!

In the end, it doesn’t matter what I think. My opinion only matters to me, and it’s up to you to decide if you agree with what I’m saying. All I would suggest is you listen to both sets of “Before and After” recordings, and come to your own conclusions.

Then, the simple message behind the whole of this piece is to keep an open mind about how a piece of music sounds, however many times you hear it – you may even get to like the way The Sex Pistols sing “My Way”!



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