Bach's Goldberg VariationsBach's Goldberg Variations

The Gramophone Choice

Glenn Gould pf

Sony Classical S3K87703 (51' · DDD) Recorded 1981. Buy from Amazon

This astonishing performance was recorded 26 years after Gould’s legendary 1955 disc (see below). Gould was not in the habit of re-recording but a growing unease with that earlier performance made him turn once again to a timeless masterpiece and try, via a radically altered outlook, for a more definitive account.

By his own admission he had, during those intervening years, discovered ‘slowness’ or a meditative quality far removed from flashing fingers and pianistic glory. And it’s this ‘autumnal repose’ that adds such a deeply imaginative dimension to Gould’s unimpeded clarity and pinpoint definition. The Aria is now mesmerically slow. The tremulous confidences of Variation 13 in the 1955 performance give way to something more forthright, more trenchantly and determinedly voiced, while Var 19’s previously light and dancing measures are humorously slow and precise. Var 21 is painted in the boldest of oils, so to speak, and, most importantly of all, Var 25 is far less romantically susceptible than before and has an almost confrontational assurance. The Aria’s return, too, is overwhelming in its profound sense of solace and resolution. This is surely the finest of Gould’s recordings.

 

Additional Recommendations

Murray Perahia pf

Sony Classical SK89243 (73' · DDD). Buy from Amazon

Murray Perahia’s Goldberg Variations aren’t just colourful, or virtuoso, or thorough in terms of repeats, but profoundly moving as well. Here you sense that what’s being played isn’t so much ‘Bach’ as an inevitable musical sequence with a life of its own, music where the themes, harmonies and contrapuntal strands await a mind strong enough to connect them.

Rosalyn Tureck was the first recorded Goldbergian to take the structural route, and her EMI/Philips set remains among the most cogent of older alternatives. And while Glenn Gould achieves formidable levels of concentration, his gargantuan personality does occasionally intrude. Perahia brooks neither distraction nor unwanted mannerism. Yes, there are fine-tipped details and prominent emphases, but the way themes are traced and followed through suggests a performance where the shape of a phrase is dictated mostly by its place in the larger scheme of things. Perahia never strikes a brittle note, yet his control and projection of rhythm are impeccable. He can trace the most exquisite cantabile, even while attending to salient counterpoint, and although clear voicing is a consistent attribute of his performance, so is flexibility. Like Hewitt, he surpasses himself. It’s just that in his case the act of surpassing takes him that little bit further. A wonderful CD.

 

Angela Hewitt pf

Hyperion CDA67305 (78' · DDD) Buy from Amazon

Name your leading interpretative preferences in the Goldberg Variations, and there’s bound to be someone on disc who ex­presses them. Leaving aside numerous harpsichord versions, the current catalogue is notably rich in colourful piano alternatives. Two things strike you about Hewitt’s Goldbergs from the start: first, that she can summon many dynamic grades simultaneously; and second, that her variations between repeats aren’t restricted to matters of voicing. For example, in Variation 13, she accelerates her phrases as if caught on a spontaneous impulse, then relaxes for the response. When she plays the variation’s first half again she significantly modifies her tone and rubato, then opts for a more formal approach to the second half. All this in just over four and a half minutes! 

Her mastery of the keyboard is exemplary. She can launch an elegant staccato or allow one voice to weave an ivy-like thread, while others argue above it. Beyond a seamless account of the pivotal Var 25, Hewitt rattles off manic trills in Var 23 and favours a grand, free-wheeling approach for Var 29. 

 

Goldberg Variations. Das wohltemperirte Clavier, Book 2 – Nos 33 & 38

Glenn Gould pf

Sony Classical mono S3K87703 (46' · ADD) Recorded 1955. Buy from Amazon

Gould’s pianistic skills have been universally and freely acknowledged, but his musical vision has elicited a range of critical response that has few parallels. The view that Bach was a mere mathematical genius and little more has long passed, but it has its echoes in Gould’s approach; he was fascinated by the structure of the music and was supremely skilful in showing the Jacquard-loom patterns woven by its contrapuntal threads. Every structural detail is exposed with crystal clarity, but, switching metaphors, what’s revealed is a marvellously designed and executed building, inhabited only by a caretaker. An overall time of 38 minutes doesn’t seem unreasonable for the Goldberg Variations (here shorn of every repeat) but the statistic is misleading: many variations pass at breakneck speeds. As an exposition of the music’s mechanism this is a remarkable performance but, despite occasional intrusions of sing-along and sparing use of the pedals (music first, pianism second), it says little of Bach’s humanity.

Two Fugues from the ‘48’ extend the playing time to the lower limit of respectability. Neither is hurried and No 33 proceeds with the solemnity that some others perceived to be its due. The sound quality of the recordings is impressive, but overall this is probably of archival rather than definitive interest.

 

András Schiff pf

ECM New Series 472 185-2 (71' · DDD) Buy from Amazon

Whatever your likes or dislikes in the Goldbergs, Schiff will surely elicit a positive reaction, more so than with his 1982 Decca recording, which, though similarly felicitous, had little of the daring, imagination and scale of this live remake. After Perahia’s probing intellect, Hewitt’s sense of fantasy and Tureck’s sepulchral gravitas, Schiff is the master colourist who, like Gould in his later Sony recording, achieves impressive continuity between variations. Contrasts, too, and never more so than in the sequence of variations Nos 20-22, taking us from brilliantly realised syncopations, to a glowering canon in sevenths, then dipping suddenly for the intimate stile antico of the four-part Variation 22. As for overall style, repeats are often embellished, sometimes radically varied. He has an occasional tendency to spread chords (Var 15), obviously loves to dance (the irresistibly lilting Var 18), relishes an elegant turn of phrase (Var 13) and has a keen ear for Bach’s wit (the tripping exuberance of Var 23). This is a fascinating, beautiful, deeply pondered and profoundly pianistic account. While not ‘authentic’ in the scholarly sense, it’s appreciative of Baroque manners and ornamentation. It’s also beautifully recorded on a mellow, finely tuned Steinway.

 

Andreas Staier hpd

Harmonia Mundi (CD + DVD) HMC90 2058 (81’ · DDD) Buy from Amazon

Andreas Staier is clearly in love. Having walked out with Anthony Sidey’s copy of a giant 1734 Hass harpsichord in two previous recital discs, he here plights his troth by choosing it for his first Goldberg Variations. The instrument has plenty of seductions – lute stop, buff stop, even a thunderous 16‑foot register – and Staier is ready to fall under their spell. And why not? It makes perfect sense to offer a Goldberg rich with the colours made available by the last flowerings of harpsichord technology, especially as the trend in recent decades for a more monochrome sound world makes it an exciting novelty. So sit back and let yourself be wooed by the sheer ‘bigness’ of Variations 4, 10 and 29, the other-worldly lute-stop reediness in No 15 followed by the explosive introduction of the 16‑foot in the overture-like No 16, the partnership of buff and ‘natural’ registers delightfully clarifying the crossing-over of parts in No 20 (echoes of the Moog here), or the eerie combination of left-hand lute stop and right-hand ‘natural’ in the Black Pearl, No 25.

The Black Pearl, by the way, also demonstrates to perfection Staier’s ability to bring a complex melodic line to life on the harpsichord with subtle articulation and rhythmic displacement, a timely reminder that it takes two to make a good match. Happily, Staier’s effortless virtuosity (hear the trills in Variation 28!) and sensible musicianship go together to make this a strong Goldberg to set beside admired alternatives. The instrument is undoubtedly a major star here but that need not stop us from recognising its player as a master harpsichordist.

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