JS BACH Goldberg Variations
Beatrice Rana has been making waves since her teens, notably at the 2013 Van Cliburn competition, where she won Silver Medal. Even so, is it really wise to record the Goldbergs at 23? How can you possibly have lived enough to have a sufficiently profound take on this Olympian work? Even Igor Levit waited until he was in his late twenties for what was to become Gramophone’s Record of the Year. Yet Gould made his famous 1955 studio recording for his CBS debut before his 23rd birthday; and Julia Fischer set down Bach’s Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas at just 21. Levit, Gould, Fischer – these are Bachians of major note. But Rana patently deserves to be numbered among them, and this is a remarkable document, from her thought-provoking, highly intelligent yet modest booklet-note to the playing itself.
As you listen to her way with the opening Aria, you might initially wonder whether the freedom and quasi-improvisatory air might become, on repeated listenings, too fixed – unnerving, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile. She takes her time, too; and then, with Variation 1, we’re thrust suddenly into a different world, one of bubbling energy and sunlight. Her detailing is one of the aspects that makes this performance so compelling, be it the bringing out of a new line in the repeat, subtle changes in phrasing, a touch of pedal – examples are to be found in every single variation. Dynamics are used to reinforce the mini-drama of a single number (sample, for instance, Var 19, which starts at a whisper, crescendoing up to the double bar). Her application of ornaments is also wonderfully fresh, though ‘application’ gives completely the wrong impression, as the effect is unfailingly organic and ranges from the sublime to the cheeky.
The variations that in some hands become merely strong and affirmative are beguilingly multi-layered (for instance Var 4, which moves from a strutting opening to something altogether more inward). Gentler numbers benefit from Rana’s ability to conjure the most translucent of textures to give us, in Var 7, a heartbreakingly wistful Gigue, while she emphasises the halting quality of Var 15 to end the first half of the Goldbergs in a state of profound unease – a mood dramatically broken by the grandiloquent entry of the French Ouverture.
In the famous so-called ‘Black Pearl’ (Var 25) she allows Bach’s tortured dissonances to speak for themselves rather than piling on a Romantic angst, the tension finally released by the joyously airborne Var 26. In some hands, these last variations, which build on that sense of joy, can seem rather forced (as Jeremy Denk once quipped, ‘each more ecstatic than the last: how much happier am I supposed to get?’). Not here, though, where they range from the bucolic to the transcendental. After a Quodlibet that rejoices in its simple good humour, the return of the Aria is as emotionally multifaceted as you would expect – mysterious, quizzical, noble, resigned, hopeful – setting the seal on a life-affirming disc.