Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Bach's Goldberg Variations on Piano, Part 4
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Donald Satz wrote (May 17, 2000):
Performing fast paced music much faster or slower than a so-called "norm" does involve risk. At the faster speed, there's the danger of losing much poetry and sounding as if the main priority of the performer is just speed. At a very slow pace, the danger is losing momentum and flow. There are, of course, great benefits of these extremes and the opportunity to be distinctive. I'm bringing up this subject because the versions of the 20th variation which I felt were sub-standard were either very fast or slow. Gould I and Lifschitz go like gangbusters; it's very impressive but leaves me simply impressed with the speed. All the nuances and emotions are sold off to the fastest bidder. Tureck II presents the problems of playing slowly. Much of the momentum is eliminated and not replaced with anything else which might be of interest or enjoyment. The other 9 versions were of moderate or fast speed and each was enjoyable. To be thruthful, I find this variation not at Bach's highest level, and none of the versions attempted to raise it.
I can't say the same for the 21st variation. This is fantastic music of drama, urgency, tension, poetry, and aching tenderness. The music is so good and provides so many opportunities to artists to deliver a great performance that nothing less than outstanding is acceptable. I suppose someone has to be at the bottom, and it might as well be Schepkin who's already there. He starts out with all the elements of a superb rendition, but once the first repeat comes around, Schepkin uses a cute staccato and gets caught up with those trills of his. With the first repeat ended, Schepkin gets back on the right track but falls off later again in the piece. In those poorly interpreted sections, he takes away from the music its seriousness of purpose - not acceptable. One step up from Schepkin is Schiff's version which brings to mind another facet of variation 21. The music's urgency and tension is greatly enhanced through frequent/short shifts in tempo and dynamics. However, there's the danger of shifts which are too extreme and can rob the music of its flow and continuity. My feeling is that Schiff carries to extremes his shifts in tempo. His reading is still very good, but it does lose continuity in a few spots. Yudina and Hewitt are at Schiff's level. Yudina doesn't need to concern herself with extreme shifts in tempo or dynamics since she provides little variance of either, giving a straight-forward and fast performance. It sounds very good but rather limited. Hewitt is consistently soft-toned, giving the music a reflective quality. I can see many listeners liking this approach, but I find it limiting as well.
That leaves eight great versions of the 21st variation. The next level up has Tureck I and Serkin. Both are slow readings which are very beautiful, but each is a little too soft-toned. Lifschitz shows that slow and strong pays many benefits; although the slowest interpretation, his sense of urgency is close to the top. The same applies to Tureck II which uses a moderate pace. I find Tipo, Koroliov, and both Goulds transcendent. Tipo is the most overtly dramatic and urgent but also finds great poetry in the music. Koroliov provides the most tension in a very rich performance and acoustic. The Gould versions are fairly similar. Neither is fast, and both are highly poetic and powerful. Their differences stem mainly from recorded sound and Gould I having no repeats.
The 22nd variation is an infectiously joyous one, and the primary differences among the versions is how each pianist takes us to that point. Six of the versions use the "let's get happy" approach; they view the music as vibrant and straight-forward; Hewitt and both Goulds are excellent. I thought Serkin's rendition suffered without the first repeat (Gould I did not). Schepkin was a little sloppy and employed detrimental trills. Yudina wasn't idiomatic nor did she vary the music at all in the repeats. Lifschitz, Koroliov, and Schiff use reflection to reach a joyous state, and each is great. Both Turecks give excellent readings of a stately and heroic nature as if achievement and its recognition lead to joy. The major loser in this varation is Tipo who never reaches joy. Actually she sounds "pissed-off" as she uses her left hand as a sledgehammer on the keys. I can only imagine what she was thinking about when she recorded this variation.
Variation 23 continues with happy thoughts as the music takes me on a rollercoaster ride; it needs momentum and continuity in a seamless environment. The music is also technically demanding. Unfortunately, I had the sense that most of the artists were struggling at times with problems of rushed speeds, excessive choppiness, chords not in unison, and insufficient joy. Yudina was particularly unagreeable with her tempo changes, stern attitude, and poor sound. But Schiff, Koroliov, and Gould II get it right; they meet every technical challenge and provide seamless/joyous music.
Serkin is not wearing very well with time. His intepretations are the most predictable up to now. He prefers slow speeds and stresses the beauty of the music. But he often misses other important components. Although he enjoys a rich sound stage, it doesn't possess the clarity or depth of Koroliov's. And I feel the loss of repeats much more with Serkin than with Gould who is substantially better at making a shortened variation seem complete.
The 24th variation is lovely music in a bitter-sweet atmosphere. The pacing of the 12 versions is quite different, ranging from about 2 minutes to over 4 minutes. Schepkin, Gould I, and Lifschitz are on the lower rung. Gould I and Schepkin are quick and sound rushed. Lifschitz gives an unidiomatic run-through. Schiff and Yudina could have been at the top, but some squirrely passage work keeps them down. The same applies to Tureck II who displays some weak right hand applications. Six versions are excellent and provide a wide range of speeds. Tureck I is extremely slow and stunning. Tipo and Serkin are slow but nowhere close to Tureck I; Tipo's performance is tender and dreamy in an acoustic to match, and Serkin's is the most beautiful. Hewitt and Koroliov have moderate pacing with everything perfectly in place. Gould II is quick but never sounds rushed, just insightful with a sense of urgency that can't be resisted.
The next posting will start with the "Black Pearl" variation and go through the completion of the Goldbergs. I have received a few e-mails from list members who are looking forward to whatever I have to say about the "Black Pearl". I just hope I don't find it as depressing as the 15th variation; if it really is the "black hole" of music, I might never be able to climb out.
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