Bach Goldberg Variations, BWV988

After Tureck’s noble architecture, Koroliov’s clarity, Gould’s sense of continuity and Hewitt’s feeling for colour, along comes Murray Perahia with a set of Goldberg s that claims all these qualities … and more

Author: 
Rob Cowan

BACH Goldberg Variations – Perahia

  • Goldberg Variations

The roll call of Goldberg's on disc amounts almost to one first-class version per variation. I cannot think that there’s a single recording (and by now I must have heard at least 30) that doesn’t identify some minor detail unnoticed by others. My last Gramophone review celebrated Angela Hewitt’s sense of colour, and the passing months have done little to dim the appeal of her fine Hyperion recording. Now Murray Perahia enters the fray with a version that isn’t just colourful, or virtuosic, or thorough in terms of repeats, but profoundly moving as well. Here one senses that what is 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. This Perahia does with sovereign command, and his perceptive programme notes help illuminate the complexion of his thinking.

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 (especially in the second of his two commercial recordings for Sony), his gargantuan personality – utterly absorbing though it is – does occasionally intrude. Perahia brooks neither distraction nor unwanted mannerism. He invests the Goldberg s with the sort of humbling gravitas that Schnabel brings to, say, Schubert’s B flat Sonata. Yes, there are fine-tipped details and prominent emphases (sample the wildly accentuated bass-line in Variation 8), 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.

The opening Aria is crystalline, lively in tone and with a distinctly singing bass-line. The first repeat is rather softer, whereas the first repeat of the first variation incorporates various added ornaments, a trend that registers time and again through the course of the performance. Middle voices are brought to the fore in Variation 3 and where, in Variation 4, Hewitt opens boldly and softens for the first repeat, Perahia reverses the process. Variation 7 is crisp and tripping, 16 opens to firmly brushed arpeggios, and I loved Perahia’s pianistic gambolling in the snakes and ladders of Variation 23. Hewitt is amazingly skilful in the contrary motions of 21 but Perahia keeps a firmer hold on the principal theme and in Variation 25 his classic, sculpted lines conjure a level of purity reminiscent of Lipatti (in Bach generally, that is – not the Goldberg s in particular, which Lipatti never recorded).

Perahia never strikes a brittle note and 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. He makes points without labouring them, which is not to deny either the brilliance or the character of his playing. Like Hewitt, he surpasses himself. It’s just that in his case the act of surpassing takes him that little bit further. A quite wonderful CD.

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