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Briefly Noted: Jean Rondeau's Goldberg Variations

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Jean Rondeau

(released on February 11, 2022)
Erato 190296508035 | 107'12"
By the time he was 30, French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau has made two recordings of the Goldberg Variations. "I will no doubt spend my life working on them," he admits in the minimal booklet for his second traversal, released earlier this year on the Erato label. In Rondeau's first version, recorded in a video for the Netherlands Bach Society in 2017, he played from a modern score, turning his own pages. That interpretation is the more straightforward of the two, with an emphasis on rhythmic regularity and the necessary technical acumen to make that happen. He played then on a modern harpsichord, a 2004 double-manual instrument built by Jonte Knif and Arno Pelto.

Rondeau used a 2006 double-manual instrument by the same makers in the new recording, based on German models, captured in the Paris church of Notre Dame de Bon Secours in April 2021. It has a fuller and more varied sound, brought to life with exacting precision by Rondeau's fingers. The second version is about ten minutes longer than the first, the result of a much less metronomic approach, for better or worse. Some of the tempi are much slower, and the introduction of rather mannered rubato, enough almost to induce seasickness, drags out many of the movements. For example, Variation XV is glacially paced, with an extended rallentando at the end to emphasize the upward scale trailing off into nothing, while Variation XXV is about two minutes longer because of the labored contemplation of every motif. Many of the movements start slowly and gradually reach a tempo, like a music-box cranking to life, a gesture that tires through repetition.

The best part of this interpretation is the sometimes extravagant ornamentation added to the repeats, all of which are taken in a rigorous observance of the score's indications. These embellishments are often quite striking, including right off the bat in the opening statement of the Aria. Rondeau apparently took into account an original printed edition, one marked and corrected by the composer himself. "Through delving into this precious musicological source," he writes, "I was able to make what I felt to be the most authentic choices." As he did in his first recording, Rondeau marks the end of Variation XV with a long silence, a way to draw attention to the bipartite division of the work, the second half of which opens with the Ouverture of Variation XVI.

The other subtle facet of this version is in the handling of the variations for two keyboards. Rondeau uses changes of registration and articulation to delineate the two hands, especially when they cross one another in range, often bringing out first one hand and then the other on the repeat. Variation XIV is a good example, where Rondeau even "removes" the written-out ornamentation at one point, playing one part of the repeated B section as a simple arpeggio, almost like a question mark. Rondeau cites the influence of the writings of reclusive French novelist Christian Bobin on his interpretation, although he does not specify how Bobin's Catholic mysticism relates to the way he plays. With this interpretation placed alongside his first recording, Rondeau has made a sort of diptych, a dual examination of Bach's score.

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