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More Goldberg Variations (Feltsman)

I simply can’t resist a recording of the Goldberg Variations, no matter how many I have and have heard, and reviewed, no matter whether on the harpsichord, transcribed, or on the piano. (Which, technically, is a transcription, too – but so accepted by now, that we don’t think of it as such.)

Like probably everyone who is familiar with this work, I have certain favorites or have been shaped, in my expectations, from recordings that left an emotional footprint – usually because they were the first with which one was exposed to the work. Glenn Gould’s recording(s) are so fêted, rank so high, because his was one of the first, certainly the most iconic, recording that brought the Goldberg Variations to our attention. For listeners and performers alike it remains the most important recording in the catalog, but in more than part because of its landmark status, not only because of the playing or interpretation.

Gould’s 1955 recording might be the first (important) word on the Goldberg Variations on piano, but isn't the last. Evidently, because among the 300+ recordings that have since been made, there must be well over 100 that also use the piano, and all – hopefully – by pianists that thought they, too, had something to say about the aria and its 30 variations.

Among those to follow Gould, I cherish Murray Perahia (2000, Sony) for a suave, romantic approach and fine tone – the nervously idiosyncratic, Gouldesque, at times, Konstantin Lifschitz (1994, Denon), and Evgeni Koroliov’s 1999 recording (on Haenssler Classics) who, after a boring aria, plays the variations with that inevitable, compelling, clockwork-like momentum that seems so indelibly Bach’s.

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Goldberg Variations,
Vladimir Feltsman

Issued now, on Nimbus, is Vladimir Feltsman’s recording of the Goldberg Variations which was once available on MusicMasters/BMG and through the Heritage Music Society. That was in the early 90’s, shortly after they were recorded at a recital Feltsman gave on October 26th, 1991, at the Moscow Conservatory. In more than one regard, there are parallels to his younger Russian colleague Lifschitz, whose recording is also live, also recorded at the Conservatory (it was the 16 year old Lifschitz’s graduate recital, if I recall correctly), also observes all the repeats, and also employs mock register changes.

Feltsman’s touch is very deliberate, delicate, and of weightless elegance in the aria, though never ‘precious’. Very early on it becomes clear that Feltsman plays Bach more as if he were performing on a harpsichord than any pianist I have heard, but he doesn’t do it in the Gould way of trying to make the piano sound like the harpsichord it isn’t. No repeat is exactly as the first – there are always changes in registration, ornamentation, or voicing – sometimes all of them together. That can sound idiosyncratic, even here, but sufficient musical sensibility and taste prevent the playing from ever nearing wayward vulgarity.

The arpeggiated four note chord in the 11th bar of the aria, a calling card for every interpreter, is first taken from the top down (g2-e2-b-g) as does Gould (and various pianists, but usually only in the repeat) – to marvelous effect. Feltsman doesn’t invert it in the repeat – which he starts out an octave higher, he makes it a coy bracketed step (g2- b- e2-g). The faux-register shifts, like Feltsman's in the aria repeat, can drive harpsichord players up the wall when done in place of actually changing nuances, because it seems to suggest that the pianist thinks that a harpsichord played really only changes octaves, rather than further vary his or her playing. Thankfully, Feltsman does them in a far less self-conscious manner than Martin Stadtfeld, who burst onto the scene with a self-recorded, idiosyncratic version of the Goldberg Variations that was picked up by Sony Europe. Nor does he leave it at playing higher or lower or switching voices from the right to the left hand and back, which is what Lifschitz could be said to be guilty of. Feltsman varies his touch even when he is already doing something more obviously ‘different’ with a repeat.

As far as piano interpretations are concerned, his is as far away as can be from the overt and, dare I say: schmaltzy, emoting of Simone Dinnerstein. (Not that her approach is per se bad, or her recording – if you like the style – anything but fine and worth listening to.) His ‘stubbed out’ fourth variation doesn’t glide by, it happily, haltingly bops along. Variation 14 is particularly colorful as notes twitter at the listener from all registers.

Bringing the Goldberg Variations – with all repeats – in under 80 minutes speaks of the nimble fingers that Feltsman employs often, but not throughout nor indiscriminately. He is very audibly unconcerned about getting things ‘done in time’ whenever he lingers as for example, in variation 15.

There isn’t the focus on forward propulsion that makes Koroliov’s recording (~85 minutes) special, but everything is ever-vigilant and entertaining. Because you are always expecting something new, it makes for very alert ears. Undoubtedly a happy surprise – and one of the most charming piano accounts I have heard in a long time. If repeat listening will prove to be as enjoyable as the first impression was good I can’t tell, but I know that I will listen to it repeatedly – and gladly – until I know.


E said...

Good post.

I was hoping you'd write more about Stadtfeld's Goldbergs, tho, having only heard him play it on Youtube due to my refusal to pay like $40 to have it shipped from (thank you, weak dollar). Stadtfeld's willingness to change octaves on repeats strikes me as at least one small step toward where I believe classical music as a whole needs to be heading in the 21st century-- a complete and utter break with fidelity to the score and what composers (as best we can tell) would have wanted their music to sound like.

I dunno, but I actually suspect that's one of the reasons we have so many Goldbergs-- musicians may feel free to bend the rules on that one because the great Gould did so first, but I doubt many would take such liberties with any other work. Which is a shame. I dearly wish that young pianists would carve out their own signature pieces rather than adding to the endless variations on the Goldbergs.

Anonymous said...

wow. your blog is so nice, so "high" and learned. so european, too. i'm just a newbie in classical music and i don't know this work. maybe i could appeal on my relatively early age: there are things impossible to comprehend when you are too young, like certain italian red wines or jazz... best regards from north of italy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Mr. Laurson for a wonderful review of Feltsman's Goldbergs. I, too, find I can't get enough recordings of this work and am constantly listening to a different recording. On the whole, however, this one is my favorite because it consciously breaks with expectations and tradition.

Perhaps my least favorite recording appeared sometime ago on the Hyperion label under the name "Gilded Goldbergs". Arranged for two pianos, four hands, it was an experiment the results of which never should have seen the light of day (much less the inside of a recording studio).

Michael Lodico said...

Austrian pianist Ingrid Marsoner gave a memorably intimate performance of this work at the Austrian Embassy about a year ago. The venue's lovely Bosendorfer also helped...

jfl said...

Dear Erik,

I don't think that classical music needs to, or should, head toward "a complete and utter break with fidelity to the score and what composers would have wanted their music to sound like"... but I think that the idea of the score necessarily being sacrosanct doesn't help toward the end of making music alive, either. So we agree in good part.

That said, Stadtfeld isn't really doing anything that can't be justified by the text - it is rather an, albeit exaggerated, attempt to mimic that way it would be played on the harpsichord. And for whatever that is worth, his approach wasn't all that new: Feltsman and Lifschitz are two pianists that I know of who came before him in doing that.

I do, however, await with hope and trepidation the GV's recorded by Pletnev. :-)


Beth Levin said...

I humbly would like to suggest my own recording of the Goldberg Variations released by Centaur Recordings last month.

Many thanks,

Beth Levin, pianist

Anonymous said... Is the first one I got hooked on. The hall plays a grand role, and 20 and 31 are mesmerizing.