JS BACH Goldberg Variations (Chih-Long Hu)
Bach’s Goldberg Variations abounds in world-class piano recordings, including several memorable recent versions covered by yours truly in these pages. That doesn’t stop young contenders from plying their wares. Chih-Long Hu generally favours tempos that relate to one another, and he observes all repeats except for the ‘A’ section of Variation 16 (the French Overture), plus those in Vars 13, 15, 25 and the Aria da capo.
The opening Aria benefits from felicitous shifts in colour, while Vars 2 and 3 feature easy-going linear interplay. Yet Hu works too hard underlining Var 4’s cross-rhythms, notwithstanding imaginative ornamentation on the repeats. The rapid runs and wide leaps in Vars 5 and 14 grow slower and thicker as the music progresses, a fault many pianists share on disc. Hu’s supple détaché articulation in Var 8 contrasts with his heavy-handed Fughetta (Var 10) and overly literal, unlilting Vars 11 and 20. He accents each of Var 15’s down-beats to the point of fatigue, and treats Var 19’s three-part counterpoint all on the same level. One can carp over Hu’s generic phrase taperings in the minor-key canon at the seventh (Var 21) and ‘Black Pearl’ variation (No 25), but the pianism here is undoubtedly sensitive. The canon at the ninth (Var 27) is brisk and forceful but the dead air of the practice room permeates Hu’s arid, rigidly metronomic dispatch of the toccata-like Var 29.
Following the Aria da capo, Hu offers Afterthoughts via his Goldberg Variations in various styles. He prefaces the Aria with a Bachian recitative, then launches into fake Mozart. If you’ve wanted to hear Schumann’s ‘Von fremden Ländern und Menschen’ from Kinderszenen welded to the Goldberg ground bass, here’s your chance. A rag-based variation suffers from paltry melodic invention and Hu’s stiff feeling for the idiom’s syncopated syntax. But who’d have guessed that the Aria and Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Georgia on my mind’ might be compatable bedfellows? Hu’s final variation evokes Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, yet tends to wander, and leans heavily on chromatic noodling. I suspect the novelty of these Afterthoughts will wear off after several hearings, as will the limited interpretative and emotional scope of Hu’s Goldbergs.