Do we need another "Goldberg Variations"?

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Do we need another "Goldberg Variations"?

I noticed, to some degree of surprise, an unusual amount of recordings, just the last few months, of a monumental work by Bach, namely the "Goldberg Variations". To my greater amazement, I found out that, only the last two years, there have been at least 19 rather easily traceable recordings:

On Piano, 8 recordings : In 2015: Andrea Padova on Stradivarius, Lori Sims on Two Pianists, Tzimon Barto on Capriccio, Lars Vogt on Ondine, while in 2016: Zhu Xiao-Mei on Accentus Music -her second commercial recording-, Marie Rosa Gunter on Genuin and, very recently, Angela Hewitt on Hyperion -her second one too- and the single CD issue of Igor Levitt on Sony.

On the Harpsichord, 5 recordings : In 2015, only one in the marginal and obscure label Vanitas with Andres Alberto Gomez, while, in 2016, we have Pascal Dubreuil on Ramee, Christine Schornsheim on Capriccio (long awaited), Mahan Esfahani on DG and, just now, Ignacio Prego on Glossa. 

Apart from all these recordings, we witnessed 6 recordings on other instruments or combination of them on the same work: a) a version for String Orchestra by Dmitry Sitkovetsky on H.M. with Britten Sinfonia (in SACD), b) a version for Marimba (!) and Ensemble on Skarbo, c) another one for Bassoon Consort (eight Bassoons and a Contrabassoon!) on MDG, d) another for the Aulos Quartet (two Oboes, Violin and Cello) on MDG as well, e) one for Organ and Cello with cellist Alexander Kniazev on Exton and very recently f) one for String Trio (La Compagnie Pochette) on Alba.

It's worth mentioning that only the not that known American label Centaur has almost half a dozen Piano recordings in its catalogue, there are more than a dozen recordings of the String Trio or String Orchestra version, about five for accordion (!) as well as for other instruments (Guitar, Harp etc.). I wonder how many people, even avid collectors, need more than one recording on accordion or more than a couple for String Trio. On the other hand, so far I have not managed to trace any recording on any Fortepiano of Bach's time (Cristofori or Silbermann). That would be a missing revelatory addition. The Luca Guglielmi disc "Bach and the Early Pianoforte" (on Piano Classics), using both the Cristofori and Silbermann instruments, was both educational and enlightening.

Just in the same vein, I noticed four recordings, only this very year, of a monumental but very demanding in terms of virtuosity, musical maturity and deep knowledge work of Liszt, i.e. the Transcendental Studies, normally recorded every now and then. So, very recently, we have the wunder Russian youngster Daniil Trifonov on DG, before him the more mature Russian Kirill Gerstein on Myrios (on SACD) and, early this year, we had seen the CDs of Dinara Klinton on Genuin and Goran Filipec on Naxos.

So, how many insights, what kind of revelations, how many new aspects of the same thing can another pianist, harpsichordist or group offer to the average listener/collector? Even avid collectors can hardly find any particular added value to Esfahani's recording and they could possibly live without the new Angela Hewitt's recording. Of course, there are all these younger generations music fans who can always find something intriguing in any new recording, while some old classic recordings will fade away. In any case, in such a saturated field, it is rather futile for any new (or old) star to try hard to prove he/she has to say something that has not already been there...many times already.

Parla

 

I'm inclined to agree with

I'm inclined to agree with you, Parla. The accumulation of recordings is becoming rather pointless. Very few of them can actually be making enough money to cover costs - the sales are just too low, even for the ones that sell the most. It is mostly about establishing a "brand", so the "artists" can sell seats in live performances. Heaven knows why DG or Sony etc still bother. There must be a corporate-profit angle of some kind, but I just can't see it. (Unless they get back-handers from the artist).

As for all these Goldbergs, it really does show just how unimaginative most pianists are. When Gould recorded it in 1955 it was a pretty daring decision: the record company thought he was bats. But now, everyone and their cat has done it. The ground isn't just well-trodden; it is a quagmire, a mashed field ankle-deep in filth. It is evidently one of those things you have to record to establish your credentials as a serious artists - though, by a rather apt paradox, this also means it automatically disqualifies you from that status. A really original artist would find their own "Goldbergs" - the piece that has been overlooked or fallen out of favour or which is completely new. What can anyone now add to the interpretation? (Live is a different matter, altogether. I am only talking about recordings......)

Nothing much after Glenn Gould ...

I couldn't agree more! Actually, I haven't found any Goldberg recording during the last 35 years that excited me as much as the second Glenn Gould disk (1981). I know, I'm exaggerating a little but you get the point ... 

 

The same argument can be made about much of the standard repertoire. The differences between recordings are ironed out sadly, so revelatory musical moments become a rarity these days on new recordings. I find myself mostly buying reissued old recordings of masterpieces ...

 

On the positive side, it's great that the labels are still producing new recordings at all. 

ganymede wrote:

ganymede wrote:

I couldn't agree more! Actually, I haven't found any Goldberg recording during the last 35 years that excited me as much as the second Glenn Gould disk (1981).....

For a long while, that was the only Goldberg I had..........I never really took to the first recording, though that may have been because I heard it long after the second.

As for many recordings sounding somewhat alike, I often find this is the case with large scale Mahler and Bruckner recordings. As long as you have a decent orchestra and a conductor who knows how to keep time, the differences between this or that recording are usually pretty slender. Hardly worth fighting over, anyway, and much of what matters generally comes down to personal taste: some like a bigger thump on the timpani, some prefer a touch more rubato in the strings..........Some prefer a really slow adagio, others favour a bit of pace.........

As for Bruckner and Mahler.

As for Bruckner, it is also amazing that recording companies and conductors vie to prove that still something has to be said, if not heard.

The last five years, we have witnessed about 10 different recordings of the complete Symphonies (some are still ongoing): In 2012, Blomstedt (Querstand), Marcus Bosch (Coviello). In 2015, Janowski (Pentatone). In 2016, Gielen (SWR Music), Mario Venzago (CPO) , Van Zweden (Exton & Challenge, now all of them in a box of Challenge), Simone Young (Oehms). There are still incomplete at least three more cycles: Jansons (on RCO Live), Paavo Jarvi (on RCA) and Nezet-Seguin (on Atma). It is quite interesting to note that with the exception of Gielen and Nezet-Seguin, all the other cycles are in SACD format! Apparently, what "new" is to be said and heard is mainly focused on the details of the sound reproduction...However, at least Van Zweden and Simone Young have some quite impressive releases in their cycles. Some from Janowski and Jarvi are not bad at all, albeit not that revealing.

However, in Mahler, we had only three cycles, at least the last five years: Tilson-Thomas (on SFS label, managed by Avie), Jonathan Nott (on Tudor) and Gergiev (on LSO LIve), all of them in SACD format! Apparently, impressive sound is essential in Mahler's musical texture. Both Tilson-Thomas and J. Nott managed to do so in their quite impressive recordings.

In any case, the sad and, to some extent, alarming is how much (particularly the big) recording companies rely on a huge amount of reissues vis a vis the new releases, which, in any case, are mostly inferior to classic recordings, indifferent or of limited interest. At least, live performances still exist and some might be promising, but, I'm afraid...the die has been cast.

Recording companies

Recording companies saturating the market is one issue I agree, but why do new recordings have to have 'something *new* to say'? (I don't mean there is no originality or personality, I just mean why the emphasis on 'something new' above anything else.) We wouldn't be so demanding for live performances so why are recordings diffierent?

 

Most people who buy recordings are presumably not fanatical collectors, they are just buying one version of something.  The ones they buy are often just selected from fairly recent recordings - or some older ones that have recently been recently repackaged and reissued.  If you look for e.g. a Mahler symphony in a bricks and mortar store these days (if you can find one) then generally you'll find this sort of limited selection.  So why isn't a new recording justified artistically if it is simply well performed and recorded? The idea that there are "classic reference recordings" seems less important these days with the demise of record buying bibles like the Penguin Guide and the Gramophone Guide. Many Gramophone reviews for instance don't list the classic reference recordings of the past, probably many reviewers have never heard them, and at most the reviews just mention another recent recording or two.

 

Ted

TedR wrote:

TedR wrote:

Recording companies saturating the market is one issue I agree, but why do new recordings have to have 'something *new* to say'? (I don't mean there is no originality or personality, I just mean why the emphasis on 'something new' above anything else.) We wouldn't be so demanding for live performances so why are recordings diffierent?

I think recordings and live performances are fundamentally different. There have to be constant live performances because people would otherwise not be able to get that experience. Evidently, there is a demand for it. Whether something new is said or not is not really important. The "liveness" is what matters. And obviously, you can't substitute a live performance from Berlin in 1952 with one taking place this Saturday in your home town, so each live performance is only in competition with other live performances taking place around the same time etc

Once you make a recording, however, you are in direct competition with all the other ones that are currently available - past, as well as present. Given that, it seems reasonable to ask, Why should I buy that one, rather than any of the other 47 available on Amazon? At that point, "newness" of interpretation might come into play. It doesn't have to, but it is a reasonable question to ask, since there is so much competition.

It is also a question that the performers might ask themselves, too - not just the consumers. If you were only going to sound the same as everyone else, what would be the point in doing it in the first place? 

And my sense is that the

And my sense is that the average classical music consumer is quite clued up when it comes to "classic" recordings etc. More so now, than ever before - largely thanks to the wealth of stuff on the internet. 

Recording..."miracles".

I think Jane put in the most eloquent way, responding to your post, Ted. Live performances are a one time live thing that are precious exactly because they happen once before a specific audience. It is this special, unique connection that happens between the performers and audience. If one is fortunate enough to have some great artists in a brilliant performance, then, one may have a memorable experience. However, what matters is life itself, not the...quality of life.

However, the recording is something quite different. It is a statement of a performer (and a producer) for any audience, anywhere, even for the posterity (as long as the recording can be available in various formats). Therefore, the artist (as Jane very rightly put it) has to ask himself/herself "am I ready to say something that is going to make my mark in the recording history or I will simply get lost in the multitude of recordings of this same work I am going to record". Of course, the average listener is not going to ask a similar question. So, for commercial reasons only or predominantly, yes, one can make another recording of a mainstream classic work, based on the understanding that, with a little help from some friendly media of any kind, the recording can sell or make a temporary mark, even if it is not going to be that genuine one.

The "classic reference recordings" are and will always be there because the information exists, in various forms beyond the "Penguin" or "Gramophone" Guides. Many reviewers, nowadays, do not list reference recordings, because they know it will not help the new one(s). They normally refer only to "similar" ones, so that the comparison can be..."fair". However, when the moment of truth comes, and they or the publication itself has to make a comprehensive review of recordings, then, it is difficult to rely on a modern recording (with few or some exceptions). This is quite obvious in the French magazines, where, all of a sudden after rave reviews about new recordings, they come up with an old, often deleted, recording to demonstrate to the readers that they miss the reference...

For me, the modern recordings can make the difference mostly in the field of the producers and engineering. Often, I cannot believe completely unknown, not that promising soloists, orchestras etc. can sound so amazingly fine, so that one can ignore who is playing and can only focus on what is being heard. That is another art of its own...

Parla

For solo and chamber

For solo and chamber musicians, it is good to listen to the musician as well as to hear the work. In an ideal world perhaps the up and coming pianist might make a name for themselves with someone less famous than Bach, but at the same time they will want to establish their credentials as a serious musician with some of the towering masterpieces. I support them in this, even if I might not buy many of their recordings - not enough money, time or shelf space.

 

The credentials of a serious musician.

"To establish their credentials" might be a tricky business, if the aspiring young soloists are not going to provide something truly original, great or inspiring. Many of the names I mentioned in my initial post have yet to establish any sort of a name of "serious musician". Quite a few just fall in the oblivion or are never recognised. Then, we have those already serious musicians who feel that they have to record, once more and in a rather short time, the towering masterpiece, because, apparently, they have something more to...say (Zhu Xiao-mei and Angela Hewitt).

Anyway, as long as they have the producers to support their project, let them go ahead. It is their business...

Parla

 

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