Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Bach's Goldberg Variations on Piano, Part 3
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Donald Satz wrote (May 12, 2000):
The 12th variation is one of my favorites, and it is works very well in a variety of interpretations. The surveyed versions constitute such a strong field that the worst performances are actually quite enjoyable. That's Tipo and Schiff who play at a fast clip but lose their momentum through abrupt and momentary changes in tempo. Schepkin, Gould I, Lifschitz, and Koroliov don't display any flaws - excellent performances. Even better are Serkin, Tureck I, and Yudina. Serkin uses a slow pace and probably provides the most beautiful rendition. Tureck I is the slowest but highly conversational. Yudina is superb in the primary theme and its repeat, but she breaks down for the remainder. The outstanding versions are Tureck II, Hewitt, and Gould II. Tureck II is about at Serkin's speed with great clarity and display of the counterpoint. Hewitt has the perfect swagger to the music and a lovely legato. Gould II is so energized and detailed; the staccato is mesmerizing. Back to Hewitt, she's doing as well as Tureck I and Gould II which just leaves Tureck II at a higher level among the 12 versions. When reviewing Hewitt's recording of the Inventions, I found her to have a tendency to be a "heavy hitter" on the keyboard. None of that is on display in her Goldbergs. She is poetic, incisive, and doing very well with the counterpoint; her recorded sound is excellent.
Variation 13 is, for me, music which increases the sense of inner peace and satisfaction that comes from an understanding and acceptance of the natural elements around us. Schepkin, in the Ongaku liner notes, states that there is a connection between this variation and the "Black Pearl" based on "tempo and rhythmic organization". Some would also say that the basic themes of the two variations are at opposite ends. There's nothing wrong with Schepkin's performance; it's safe and pleasant. But, I have no wish to listen to it again in the near future, and this also applies to both Turecks, Hewitt, and Schiff. They simply are not distinctive. Tureck II is different; she supplies a negative mood to the music and in a manner which I do not find highly musical. Koroliov, Serkin, Lifschitz, and both Goulds are in the "can't listen just once" category. Koroliov, Serkin, and Lifschitz provide beautiful readings in gorgeous sound. Gould I is perky with excellent counterpoint; Gould II is slower and more analytical with equally fine counterpoint. The "can't stop listening" category has Tipo and Yudina. Tipo is slow paced, graceful, appropriately dramatic, and highly atmospheric. For a more clinical yet fully emotive reading with great pacing in a "stark" acoustic, Yudina is supreme. Her sound quality isn't bad at all on this track.
Variation 14 is a happy and fast piece with a fine supply of tension which can remind me of demonic activities. All of the versions were in the "fast" category except for both Turecks. Of the faster versions, Koroliov is best; he handles the speed admirably and his chords are perfect. Tureck I is as good with a little slower tempo which further clarifies the counterpoint. Tureck II and Yudina had a few technical problems which sounded like a matter of dexterity.
I remember very clearly the first time I listened to the 15th variation; I was a teenager and thought the music was just right for moaning losers going nowhere. Of course, the fact that I still recall the event shows that the variation had impact on me. Listening to it in recent days and having attended 3 funerals in the past month, one a suicide, I find the music very dark and hopeless; there are two beautiful passages where the sky brightens a little, but they are very short and the piece ends in utter despair. The music itself is constantly searching out from its base and is highly intricate. This is a variation which gives the listener more to dwell on with each playing.
I kept playing over and over each version of the 15th variation, assuming that I would eventually differentiate between those I thought superb and those of lesser quality. I never did find much difference, although the continual listening depressed the hell out of me. Each version is very good, and none transcends the others. Gould I is quick with the others either slow or extremely slow. When I listened to Tureck I at over 5 minutes, I thought the piece couldn't be done any slower. Then Lifschitz came in at over 6 minutes; I'm waiting for the 10 minute version.
The 16th variation is music in the style of a French overture. I think of the piece as consisting of "heroic" music which turns into an energetic fugue/celebration of great momentum. I can't say that most of the surveyed versions reminded me much of a hero's welcome, but Tipo came the closest. Concerning the fugue, both Tureck versions, relative to the others, slowed down the pacing and changed the symmetry of the music - great decision with stunning results. Four versions, Schiff/Schepkin/Serkin/Hewitt, didn't fare very well in that their performances were not heroic nor did they well maintain momentum/excitement in the fugue. So, the two Turecks do best here.
Variation 17 is generally played at a fast pace although Tureck II shows that a moderate speed can work just fine. Regardless of speed, the variation needs to be playful, energized, and strong. Tipo is very fast but soft-toned; she displays no strength and the muddy sound quality is a hindrance. Serkin also is soft-toned and sounds detached from the music. Tureck I lacks energy and the piano sounds recessed. Leaving aside Gould II and Tureck II, the remaining versions are very good. Schepkin gets down to business and eschews his frequent mannerisms. Schiff is very poetic without losing any momentum. Of the fast versions, Gould II is the one who fully meets the requirements of the piece. Tureck II has the slowest reading and is highly detailed; she really brings out the inner structure of the music, and she loses nothing in energy and strength.
The 18th variation is a relatively serene and satisfying piece of music possessing much poetry and beauty. The faster versions, such as both Goulds, Schepkin, and Lifschitz also give the music a playful quality with a little loss of poetry. But Hewitt is both playful and highly poetic and, therefore, the best reading. Yudina is at the low end solely due to a fierce sounding bass line which is at odds with the music's moods and irritating.
Variation 19 is "feel-good" music which sounds wonderful in a slow, loving, and legato rich manner provided by Koroliov. There's great opportunity to highlight and examine the counterpoint which Hewitt does to perfection. Gould II gives a performance which unveils all the best elements of the music. The other versions are very good excepting for Serkin whose reading was uninvolved, Schiff who changed octaves on me, and Yudina whose combination of fast speed and poor sound didn't feel good at all.
I've spoken little of Lifschitz. Although his speeds do vary from quite fast to very slow, I think his conceptions and interpretations are very mainstream. He knows how to be poetic, and he has great technical skills. What I sense lacking is an individual view of distiction which a Gould or Tureck has in abundance.
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