Goldberg Tempo Variations

I like charts. And I like Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Here is a chart of tempos taken from six prominent recordings of the Goldberg: Glenn Gould’s landmark 1955 recording, Gould’s 1959 live recording, Gould’s 1982 recording, Murray Perahia’s 2000 recording, András Schiff’s 2001 recording, and Angela Hewitt’s 2000 recording.

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Click to embiggen

The detailed data is given in the table below. Naturally, performance tempos are rarely maintained with any kind of precision throughout an entire movement. These tempo readings, therefore, reflect simply the first steady tempo established in each movement, the tempo that is generally maintained through a good portion of its opening. For those movements which are too slow to effectively determine a tempo and/or which are played with enough rubato to make calculation difficult, tempo readings were determined by dividing the number of beats played by the track’s duration. Asterisks (*) in the chart below mark tempos derived in such a way. Tempos in bold indicate the quickest pace for each movement; markings in italics, the broadest. For the bipartite 16th variation, the Overture, two tempo markings were registered.

Movement Gould 1955 Gould 1957 Gould 1982 Perahia 2000 Schiff 2001 Hewitt 2000
Aria 50* 53* 31* 48* 54* 47*
Var. 1 137 121 83 104 103 114
Var. 2 111 95 79 81 96 79
Var. 3 (Canon 1) 72 60 63 68 66 57
Var. 4 69 61 58 59 62 62
Var. 5 173 154 166 144 131 129
Var. 6 (Canon 2) 67 73 73 48 50 38
Var. 7 63 59 55 75 86 64
Var. 8 140 124 111 109 118 105
Var. 9 (Canon 3) 104 96 97 60 89 71
Var. 10 (Fughetta) 99 99 94 86 91 85
Var. 11 77 67 74 78 67 63
Var. 12 (Canon 4) 115 105 92 90 104 77
Var. 13 52 55 42 42 46* 43*
Var. 14 110 99 96 92 103 93
Var. 15 (Canon 5) 29* 26* 19* 30* 34* 30*
Var. 16 (Part 1) 33 34 26 40 37* 28
Var. 16 (Part 2) 93 82 69 76 72 71
Var. 17 118 111 109 121 92 90
Var. 18 (Canon 6) 92 96 94 96 104 94
Var. 19 146 130 90 130 150 122
Var. 20 141 118 118 107 117 109
Var. 21 (Canon 7) 43 49 47 52 71 50
Var. 22 102 96 93 90 85 94
Var. 23 111 103 103 105 94 95
Var. 24 (Canon 8) 108 103 89 82 90 68
Var. 25 15* 23* 16* 26* 28* 25*
Var. 26 114 111 112 99 94 97
Var. 27 (Canon 9) 85 75 73 80 86 68
Var. 28 94 98 92 93 68* 87
Var. 29 102 103 94 86 108* 85*
Var. 30 (Quodlibet) 91 80 73 82 108 70
Aria 45* 48* 26* 44* 54* 41*

In 13 of the 33 movements (counting Variation 16 as two separate movements), Angela Hewitt provided the broadest tempo among the six performances. Eliminate Gould ’82 from the chart and that number rises to 18. In fact, Hewitt’s rendition as a whole is easily broader than Gould’s notoriously broad ’82 recording. Averaging out all the tempo readings in Hewitt produces an overall average of 74.3 bpm compared to a 77.5 bpm average in the Gould.

It may come as little surprise to those who know Gould’s ’55 recording that it represents the briskest recording of the six with an average of 90.6 bpm, registering the quickest tempo in 16 of the 33 movements. (Hewitt provided the briskest tempo in none of the movements.) What I did find a bit surprising is that while I expected Gould to provide the most metronomic performances (and thus the easiest to do a tempo calculation), this was not at all the case. Easily the most metronomic of these performances is by Hewitt. One almost gets the sense that she practices hours on end with metronome on. Natural as it may be that András Schiff’s ultra-dynamic pianism made tempo calculation in his performances most difficult, I was still surprised at just how elastic his tempi can be.

Calculating tempo averages from quickest to broadest puts Gould ’59 just under Gould ’55 at 85.1 bpm followed by Schiff at 83.6 bpm, Perahia at 79.5, Gould ’85 and Hewitt.

I could go into further mundane details about the chart, but I will refrain and let the reader explore those details. Readers interested in hearing more about tempo choices in Gould’s 1982 recording might want to listen to the pianist’s (entirely scripted) interview with Tim Page conducted at the time of the recording’s release. The interview took place just months before Gould’s death.

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About Luke Dahn

Composer and music theorist Luke Dahn is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Utah. He is also co-founder and artistic co-director of Ensemble Périphérie, and lives in Salt Lake City with his wife Yu Jueng and daughter Mae. http://www.lukedahn.net.
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One Response to Goldberg Tempo Variations

  1. Alex says:

    This is awesome thanks for putting this together!

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