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Dip Your Ears, No. 252 (Céline Frisch’s Goldberg Variations Re-Issued)

available at Amazon
Johann Sebastian Bach, Goldberg Variations
Céline Frisch (harpsichord)

In a Goldberg Variation survey from about ten years ago, I wrote that “Richard Egarr, who impresses with feeling and his soft touch, outplays the fairly similar Céline Frisch, who also includes the 14 Goldberg canons (although in a version for chamber group, not on the harpsichord as does Egarr) 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.“

I’m sitting in front of the re-release now, and appreciate what was then Céline Frisch’s first recording for Alpha a good deal more. Or I hear it differently now. The field is obviously still as crowded, but good harpsichord versions do stand out of the market and Frisch’s is at least one of the more interesting. She’s got a free, knotty, agogic way that I struggle to describe. Essentially it’s a stagger – that really enhances the feeling of the harpsichord’s plectrum plucking away at the string. Then again she does that throughout, in determined and unflinching manner, and I can see how this might sound one-dimensional to some. Those would be better off with Keith Jarrett, whose stagger on his very intriguing (and harpsichord-unorthodox) recording (ECM) is far more flexible. Frisch’s intra-phrase rubato is contrasted with a steady pulse of the Variations that keeps her on track. It makes her recording not one I would recommend to those seeking an ear-charming introduction to the Goldberg Variations played on the harpsichord (Egarr or Pierre Hantaï are better suited for that), but the determined harpsichord-loving Bachian should find it a delight.

That alluded-to inclusion of extraneous, Goldberg-related pieces could be the kicker to what is already one of the more satisfying Goldberg Variations on the harpsichord. And indeed, the inclusion on a second disc of the 14 Canons on the First Eight Notes of the Bass of the Aria of the Goldberg Variations, BWV 1087 (so far, so rare and good, thanks to Céline Frisch’s superb period band, Café Zimmermann) and the two German songs used in the Quodlibet of the Goldberg Variations: “Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben” (“Cabbage and turnips have driven me away”) and “Ich bin solang nicht bei dir g'west” ("I have been away from you for so long”) is most welcome. But unfortunately Dominique Visse, a character-counter-tenor whom I enjoy greatly in action, sings it in a mock-comic of faux-historic way (and with bad German), which rather ruins the listening to a popular, however comical, folk-song which I would much rather have sung straight. But that’s grumbling about the bonus encore.


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