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Goldberg Variations

Alex Ross 'Critic's Notebook' - click to see in full
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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Richard Egarr

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Pierre Hantaï II

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Masaaki Suzuki

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Keith Jarrett

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Céline Frisch

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Hantaï I

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Wanda Landowska II

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Wanda Landowska I

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Gould ('55 & '81)

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Murray Perahia

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Konstantin Lifschitz

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Charles Rosen

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Rosalyn Tureck VI
Richard Egarr has long proven himself one of the finest harpsichordists in Bach, his recordings for Harmonia Mundi – especially his collaborations with Andrew Manze – being the proof. What he isn’t necessarily, is the most exciting harpsichordist (yes, at Ionarts we think this is not an oxymoron). That title may well go to Pierre Hantaï or Christophe Rousset. Or, as it turns out Masaaki Suzuki.

Egarr’s latest disc is a recording of the Clavierübung consisting of an Aria with Diverse Variations for the Harpsichord with Two Manuals Composed for Music Lovers, to Refresh their Spirits, a.k.a. “Goldberg Variations” and it enters the catalogue as the first that employs a harpsichord tuning system thought – by its ‘re-inventor’ Bradley Lehman - to be the one that Bach used and preferred… all based on a little scribble that can be found on the manuscript of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Agree or not, it sounds and looks convincing in argument and it sounds convincing on record. (To read all about it - and far more than you probably wanted to know read the description and analysis of Lehman's in his essay for Oxford Early Music publication from February/May 2005 which you can access via this link.)

The hues become occasionally softer, there are warmer harmonies. Not particularly noticeable in the Aria and generally not as noticeable as I had hoped (or feared), you can hear how some keys and note relationships live in greater tension to each other. There is some 'bending' (but never that ‘out-of-tune’ feeling of natural tuning employed in some early baroque recordings) going on, but a radical step away from what we are used to this tuning system is not, which is, I guess, its point. And as such this recording not only can, but must be compared to other, 'regular' versions, just on the account of playing and interpretation.

Here Egarr impresses with feeling and a soft touch. In my opinion he outplays the fairly similar Céline Frisch on the alpha label, who also includes the 14 Goldberg canons (although for chamber group, not harpsichord like Egarr does) and the two songs on which the 30th variation, the Quodlibet is based. The alpha disc, a CHOC de Le Monde de la Musique 2001 and Diapason d'or 2002 winner, is highly interesting for that reason, but the Goldberg Variations themselves cannot stand out in a crowded field. On the mellow side, they compete directly with the ultimately more expressive Egarr. (The latter's complete accompanying essay - the liner notes only have excerpts - in .pdf form can be read here.)

Either Landowska recording – I prefer the RCA recording by a small margin over the earlier EMI but profess to not particularly liking either, no matter their iconic status – can’t quite compare to Egarr’s (or anyone else’s) just on sonic grounds alone, the copy of the 1638 Ruckers harpsichord caught in excellent, full sound by the Harmonia Mundi engineers. Landowska remains, as usual, in a category of her own. (Here are a few pictures of [copies of] Ruckers double manual harpsichords: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.)

For the same reasons that Gould (CBS/Sony, 1955) is more exciting than the honest, if pondering Tureck (DG, 1998) or the meticulous Rosen (Sony, 1992), Suzuki (BIS, 1997) is more exciting than his harpsichord rivals. He socks it to the Goldbergs; he is explosive at every note. (He also skips the repeats in the slow movements, adding to the overall 'fast' impression.) Is Suzuki full of tender detail and nuance like Egarr? No. Nor does it have the deeper reaching stalky rhythmic precision of sometimes maligned Keith Jarrett (ECM, 1994) that I’ve perversely grown to love (only) upon closer listening. Suzuki's beauty - or rather: fascination - is one of the surface and, call me shallow, that’s sometimes enough, even with a piece like the “GV.”

Pierre Hantaï sparkles in every note on his first recording on op.111 (1992), presents a woven carpet of bubbly sound. Most pleasing – also a surface-focused account (not to be mistaken for superficial). Hantaï’s more recent recording is on the Mirare label (2003), which has so far produced only winners. I don’t own it but have heard it once or twice. The superficial impression is a similar, slightly slower account, less straightforward as his on op.111 – with slightly better, deeper sound. What it did not strike me as, however, was the kind of revelation that Christophe Rousset’s Clavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann (Ambroise, 2005) presented in terms of sound of instrument and recording.

Among the lot, the choice would be difficult to make – although it is difficult not to be impressed by Suzuki and carried away by Hantaï. Jarrett is less obviously a top contender – but I found him to hold up against most of the competition because his rhythm, perhaps seemingly stiff at first, reveals itself to have spine and keeps the work fresh from the first note to the last, never allowing the tension or propulsion to sag. Egarr presses softer buttons altogether; those who look for sensitivity might find their match here.

Landowska famously responded to a piano playing critic of her Bach: “You play Bach your way, I play him his way.” [Almost, but not quite: See correction by A.C.Douglas in comment section. -jfl] That’s funny, still, if for different reasons. To think that Landowska’s Pleyel resembled a harpsichord from Bach’s time any more than a Steinway D is a stretch. Egarr, however, might just have a claim to this statement. Whether that is enough to merit the inclusion of this disc depends on the listener’s desire to hone in as closely as possible to what the original may have, ideally, sounded like... and his or her willingness to double and triple up on G-berg recordings. For me, this is not a first choice, but a most welcome, well and warmly played addition to the bulging shelf where I particularly cherish Suzuki (fast), Hantaï (sparkle), Jarrett ("The Stork") on harpischord - and Gould (required), Perahia (romantic - Sony) and, as of late, Lifschitz (as nimble as Gould with more interesting rhythm - in Denon's great sound) on piano.

Bach's 'Tuning Scribble' acc. Lehman
Go to the follow-up post on the Goldberg Variations.


Mark said...

Very nice squiggles jfl. People are going to think your getting sensative.

A.C. Douglas said...

Landowska famously responded to a piano playing critic of her Bach: “You play Bach your way, I play him his way.”

Perhaps famously, but wrongly.

Landowska's good-natured remark was made not to a pianist, but to the great cellist, Pablo Casals. The two had gotten into a friendly argument concerning the execution of a Bach embellishment, and pile evidence upon evidence for her way of executing it, Landowska could not convince Casals of its rightness. Finally, in jesting exasperation, Landowska delivered what is perhaps the neatest bon mot in all of music. (And perhaps not so incidentally, the correct quote -- minus the personal address -- is, "You perform Bach your way, and I'll perform him his way.")


jfl said...

Thanks for the correction ACD. Out of sheer curiosoity, do you know in what language that took place?

A.C. Douglas said...

I suspect French, but that's just a flat-out guess on my part. I say French because the "argument" took place in one of Landowska's temporary refuges on her run from the Nazis located in Banyuls-sur-Mer in the Pyrenees (Casals had come there for a visit), and also because to my knowledge Landowska didn't speak Spanish.


A.C. Douglas said...

RE, the language spoken, I should have added in my last that in the era in which this "argument" took place (1940) French was the lingua franca of practically all cultured Europeans, and certainly of all artists.


Gawain said...

Not quite a propos, but nevertheless interesting to share with friends, here is Landowska about the interpretation of Bach (in a footnote to her "French and Italian Music – Its influence on the Germans")

"It is a bad sign that so many players specialize exclusively in Bach because it is impossible to play and love Bach when one has little knowledge of those he loved and played and with whom his works are tied intimately. Therefore, I distrust those Bach specialists who, submitting to current fashion, have sprung up like mushrooms. What is striking in them is precisely the fact that they do not know the music Bach himself knew and developed. Moreover, they do not even know all the works of Bach. It is evident that they would play differently the adagio from the D minor concerto if they knew well The Entombment from The St. Mathew’s Passion. Their ignorance of the chief works of Bach, and of the music of Couperin, Rameau, Pachelbel, Buxtehude, and others, is constantly felt in their renderings of Bach’s keyboard works. How many times it has happened that Couperin or Pachelbel have enlightened for me a phrase of Bach’s about which I was anxiously undecided."

Thanks, JFL. I'm always on a lookout for good new harpsichordists. You bring a rich crop!

Anonymous said...

Are you actually saying that a Pleyel harpsichord is no closer in sound to an historical harpsichord than a Steinway D? That's rather silly. Pleyel detractors always seem to create such exaggerations to express their disapproval.

Admirers of revival harpsichords will point out that historical replications tend to produce the same timbres with little relief. To listen to the entire Goldbergs with 2 basic sounds is a bit trying for average folks, no matter how well played, it is too austere for most listeners, which probably explains why the best selling versions of the WTC or the Golbergs are piano versions.

I hope the age of historical dogmatism is nearing it's end, and a more sane and accepting attitude becomes prominant.

Tristan Klingsor said...

Or that those who reproduce ancient harpsichords get better at it.

Not to mention the ears of modern harpsichordists. The fact is that the monochromatic registrations used are perfectly in keeping with the weak, churning rhythm and racing tempi that is so much a feature of today's playing. (Though things are clearly improving, as Skip Sempé's recent recordings of L. Couperin show.)

People ought not to dogmatise on what a Pleyel harpsichord sounded like who have only heard one in bad old recordings. But whatever Mme Landowska played—and she was a fine pianist, too—it is her taste, feeling for shape, innate rhythmic sense, imagination and temperament, that made her a great interpreter.