Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Bach's Goldberg Variations on Piano, Part 5
Continue from Part 4
Donald Satz wrote (May 21, 2000):
It's time for the 25th variation commonly referred to as the "Black Pearl". Schepkin, in his Ongaku liner notes, states that this variation "constitutes the moment of absolute stasis. It is a vacuum, a "black hole" mercilessly absorbing the earthly joys and heavenly visions of the preceding pieces." Angela Hewitt, in her liner notes, states that "Variation 25 is, without a doubt, the greatest of all the variations, demanding the utmost in musicianship and expressiveness".
My take on this variation is quite different. The Goldberg Variations has just three minor key pieces - nos. 15, 21, and 25. As I've already indicated, I find no. 15 totally depressing, beautiful, and effective. No. 21 is perhaps my favorite variation of all. Next to those two, I consider the Black Pearl a come-down in quality. It's fine music but not at the highest level. I do not find it depressing, but when played at a snail's pace such as in Tureck I, it is difficult to maintain concentration. The booklet calls for a timing of close to eight minutes and that's plenty, but the actual playing time is close to nine minutes. That's much too long for the material. Tureck II shaves over a minute from the timing of Tureck I, and that's all to the good. Tureck II is fully expressive and has more variety of dynamics than Tureck I. Gould II brings us back to an extemely slow pace which is also a snoozer; fortunately, Gould II does not observe all repeats. Gould I is very similar to Gould II. Schepkin's reading is similar to both Goulds, although it is a little more lively in dynamic shadings. Tipo's is a nice reading similar in quality to Tureck II. Yudina's speeds are similar to Tureck II with a good range of dynamics. Hewitt's reading is a little under eight minutes and is very good with substantial dynamic shadings. Serkin is in the snooze category - please wake him up in time for his new Beethoven recording. I'm glad to report that Schiff shows some life with a tempo I find pleasing. Lifschitz is very slow and lifeless. I was really excited when Koroliov's booklet indicated a time of one minute! Finally, a performance that might have a real spark to it. But, alas, the timing is actually 11 minutes - no life at all. So, Schiff, Hewitt, Tureck II, Yudina, and Tipo are my preferred versions.
I purposely was using terms for the 25th variation such as snoozer and lifeless to highlight what I think would be the major differences of opinions about performance practices for this piece of music. Persons of opposite opinion to mine would likely indicate that the "lifeless" quality I don't appreciate means that I've missed the point of the music which is to suck out all life and end up with nothing; the life force has effectively been deconstructed. But, those slow performances tend to make my mind wander. Further, I know of no indication from Bach, the composer of the Goldbergs, that the intent of this variation is to suck out the life force or anything else. From my perspective, there are five versions of the twelve that don't quite see the music as the absolute "black hole". What all this adds up to is that each of us will take in this music in a manner which connects with our basic personalities, experiences, and the immediate concerns on our minds. As for me, I don't know what all the fuss is about concerning the 25th variation. If there's a variation that comes anywhere close to representing a "black hole", it's number 15.
The 26th variation is an extemely vigorous toccata which is filled with tension, excitement, and a fine degree of poetry. And it's so interesting to listen to every note as the music weaves its spell. Koroliov's is the only performance which offers the above *and* a great sense of the building up of tension and power. All the other versions, but one, are fine including both Goulds and Serkin who can't build up very much tension since they eschew the first repeat. The one deficient version comes from Tipo; the hazy sound acoustic is detrimental and Tipo's piano needed some tuning.
Variation 27 is happy and playful music with the two canonic voices conversing with and at one another. Most of the versions are excellent. Hewitt states that the variation is "slightly tinged with mischief", and she plays it that way. Lifschitz, Koroliov, and Schepkin take a highly exuberant approach. Serkin is thoughtful, both Turecks are slow with pronounced staccato, and Gould II has great pacing. Not quite as good are Gould I and Yudina; Gould I is very fast and loses some poetry, while Yudina has a couple of technical difficulties. Schiff and Tipo hold up the rear. Schiff reverts to some odd mannerisms like pounding a note for no reason I can fathom; this hurts the music's flow. Tipo's interpretation has no sense of dialogue between the voices as the right hand is subservient to the left.
The 28th variation could be named the variation of trills. The music can express a wide variety of emotions although playfulness and joy tend to dominate the majority of the versions. Three performances left me thinking that I'd never know this was great music: Schepkin, Serkin, and Koroliov. Koroliov manages to make the music very harsh, and Schepkin and Serkin are on auto-pilot. All the other versions, except Schiff, are excellent. Both Turecks provide a great staccato effect, Tipo gives an elegant reading, and Hewitt is deliciously playful. But Schiff towers above them all. He keeps ushering me into different worlds; the wide range of emotions he conveys is outstanding and each intepretive decision (and he makes so many) is perfect.
I haven't written many positive comments about Schiff, but his performance of variation 28 is pure magic.
Variation 29 is a lively toccata that takes many twists and turns with "jackhammer" beats from the left hand, double octave leaps from the right hand, and streams of of sound going off in what seems like a myriad of directions. Every version is very good. Hewitt is very playful, Lifschitz is slow paced and poetic, and Schepkin's version is the variation for an upbeat Armageddon. Overall, I prefer Koroliov. He's on the slow side which allows for a greater breadth of interpretation which he uses very well. At the same time, he has a fine sense of the power inherent in the music.
The 30th and last variation is known as a "Quodlibet". This term relates to popular songs being superimposed on one another as might happen when a group gathers to celebrate. Bach's music is certainly celebratory and joyous. Most of the versions are fine, but Serkin appears a little uninvolved and Koroliov has a heavy hand. Lifschitz stands out for the sense of "pomp and circumstance" he creates which I think is a fitting tribute to the conclusion of the 30 variations. I wish Lifschitz's version hadn't been the last I listened to; I had almost concluded that none of the versions was special and I never like that result.
The Goldberg Variations concludes with the Aria da capo as we end up just where we began except for experiencing a superb work. As expected, most of the versions are a little slower and/or softer than the opening aria. But, my conclusions concerning the different versions remain the same. Schepkin uses a higher octave in the repeat, but the results still are not very good.
Gould I is mostly about speed, movement, and propulsion. Within these confines, Gould is outstanding. However, the interpretation is rather limiting. On that basis, I have Gould in the middle of the pack. The lack of repeats was a negative factor on a few tracks. Sound quality is not excellent but also not detrimental.
Gould II is a superb interpretation. Speed and propulsion are not neglected, but Gould also deepens his performances and provides a wider array of emotions. He often observes the first repeat, and the sound quality is a major step up from Gould I. This recording is as good as it gets.
Hewitt is excellent and just a little lesscompelling than Gould II. There's nothing eccentric from Hewitt, but her performances are not ordinary. She's very poetic, playful, and fully idiomatic. With great sound quality, I consider her recording essential.
Koroliov has grown on me in recent weeks. Initially, I thought the sound had a "carnival" aura about it, but I've come to love it and think it's the best sounding version of the twelve. And Koroliov delivers some great performances. He's generally on the slow side and very expressive. It might not be a must-buy recording, but it's awful close.
Lifschitz does about as well as Gould I. Lifschitz is a young aritst with great potential and a wealth of technical skill. In a few of the variations, the potential is fully realized. This is a very good issue which I'm glad to have.
Schepkin is not competitive, and I don't intend to keep my copy of it. He is much too fussy and generally lacks insight. This is hard to fathom given that his other Bach recordings have been very good or better. Best to avoid this recording.
Schiff, although a major improvement on Schepkin, shares some of Schepkin's problems. However, I hesitate to not recommend Schiff because of that fantastic performance of the 28th variation. Is one variation worth all that much? I think it is when "magic" is involved.
Serkin is not recommended. His performance, although frequently beautiful with fine sound, is too often uninvolved and predictable. Also, with the lack of repeats, I kept saying to myself, "Is that all there is"?
Tipo's is a fine version. She favors a rather hazy/smokey delivery, and the sound is a match. This works great now and then but does harm to those variations which are better served with a clear and crisp sound. Although not an essential acquisition, Tipo will always have my vote of approval. Her best performances can't be beat.
Tureck I ranks as highly as Hewitt. She is distinctive, quite slow at times, and always stretching the envelope of expectations. The only problem is that Tureck II is quite similar in conception with performances that are a little better and with sound that's much better. The value added of buying Tureck I, if you already have Tureck II, might be on the low end.
Tureck II is at the top with Gould II. I recall comments in review magazines and on this list to the effect that Tureck II is icy and/or ordinary. I don't hear any of this. She is light years away from ordinary. Ordinary/mainstream versions have the customary pacing, tempo, dynamics, legato, staccato, etc. It's a fact that Tureck II has nothing ordinary about it. Whether it's icy or not is an opinion. Mine is that Tureck is fully emotive and superior to every other version in this regard except for Gould II.
Yudina gives me mixed emotions. She has to deal with some rough sound, and she is quite willful with some of the variations. At other times, she is idiomatic with great pacing. Overall, I have to recommend against purchase.
Well, it's been a pleasure listening to and giving my impressions of the surveyed recordings of the Goldberg Variations. Through the survey, I did substantially change my opinion of two recordings: Koroliov up- Serkin down. Hewitt has become a commanding Bach pianist, and I don't think it will take very long for Lifschitz to join her. Gould II and Tureck II are the standards to beat and it will be a very difficult assignment.