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Bach Goldberg Variations; Partita No. 5

Glenn Gould (piano)

Naxos Historical   8.111247

Glenn Gould's playing was controversial; this CD is also.

Here is yet another re-issue of the celebrated 1955 Goldbergs (coupled to the 1954 CBC broadcast of Partita No 5 – note, not the later CBS studio recordings made in New York), but it is not from Sony. It is, instead, another Naxos historical issue, with claims from the ubiquitous Mark Obert-Thorn, that using immaculate LP copies has produced a better result than the original master tapes (which are, of course, in Sony's ownership.)

The key is – the recording is out of copyright. Copyright lasts for different periods of time in different countries and for different types of intellectual property. In the UK , it is 50 years for recordings. Ironically, in the US it is seventy, so while anyone is now free to issue ‘their' Gould Goldbergs, this Naxos disc remains illegal in the USA .

There have been some murmurings; it is one thing to have competing CD versions of 78s, or historic recordings where the master tapes are lost, or so badly damaged that immaculate copies are better, and where the extraneous noise is so great that different filtering systems produce quite different results. But this is from the LP era, and there is nothing ‘wrong' with the original CD transfers

Irrespective of the methodology of digital transfer, the fact remains, Naxos did not have to pay to license these recordings from Sony, who would surely have refused. When claims are made that an LP might provide a better source than a master tape, the public domain (and therefore free nature of that LP source) makes the argument specious.

Gould of course took a keen interest in recording technology; his 1981 Goldbergs was one of the first recordings to be made digitally. Gould did not live long into the digital era; otherwise he would no doubt have had the luxury, enjoyed by Herbert von Karajan or Alfred Brendel , of re-recording large portions of his discography simply to benefit from the new technology.

Karajan's early digital recordings betray the limitations of the new technology; the sound can be aggressive and lacking in refinement. And this realisation meant that when Gould re-recorded his Goldbergs, the engineers took the precaution of making a simultaneous analogue recording too. This analogue version was recently released by Sony (and features in their Gould anniversary issue) and made it as far out of usual classical music territory as the Radio 4 consumer programme You and Yours.

And Sony themselves have also now brought out an all-singing, all-dancing simulated ‘surround sound' version of the 1955 version, which of course was mono. So here, the original rights holders are gaining added commercial value from something that is artistically identical.

This is actually the cornerstone of the argument that we should not be bothered by the reissue. After all, Sony may own CBS, but it is not CBS. No-one objects to seeing cheap editions of Shakespeare or Wordsworth, nor is Glenn Gould himself alive to state his preferences.

A further, complicating factor, is that until we reach the eighties, and recordings that were made digitally, we have no idea of the condition of any master tape. There are plenty of anecdotes about how record companies happened to neglect one part of their archive, or made recordings on tape that has not lasted well, so that in some cases they themselves have been forced to use LPs as their source for reissuing their own catalogue.

Improved digital remastering is hardly new – signature series like DG ‘originals' have often endeavoured to improve the first transfer to CD, and succeeded. So the $64000 question is – is the transfer better, or at least different?

My own impressions bear out Mark Obert -Thorn's own words 100%.

The Naxos notes of course don't acknowledge the existence of the original CBS issue, but Obert -Thorn rightly felt obliged to defend his actions. He said: From my perspective, it seemed as though Sony's engineers filtered the highs in order to cut the tape hiss for their CD.  I found that by playing back the LPs using the proper EQ, there were more highs, more openness and therefore more impact to the recording, even compared to Sony's latest efforts . For me, Obert -Thorn's IS a more striking transfer, but the hiss is very noticeable.

If for some reason you've never heard this recording, your view on which transfer to buy should be determined by the last paragraph. If you are a Gould fan, you will already have one of the innumerable Sony issues of the 1955 Goldbergs . The coupling will, however, interest you – we know that Gould was unhappy with his studio Partitas, and this gives another view.

Ying Chang