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Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Gwendolyn Toth (Lautenwerk)
Bach's Goldberg Variations on the Lautenwerk


Bach: Goldberg Variations

Goldberg Variations BWV 988

Gwendolyn Toth (Lautenwerk) [Lautenwerk by Willard Martin, 1988]

Zefiro Recordings / Fountainbleu Ent. 103

Jun 2000

2-CD / TT: 83:06

Recorded at St. James Chapel, Cathedral of St. John the Divine,
New York City
Discussions: Goldberg Variations BWV 988 - played by Gwendolyn Toth
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Donald Satz wrote (December 1, 2003):
Summary: Pure Enjoyment - Almost

You might be wondering just what type of instrument is a lautenwerk. Well, it sounds a little like a harpsichord but is much warmer/rounder in tone with a shorter decay time. It's probably best to think of it as a harpsichord with gut strings or as a cross between a lute and harpsichord. One aspect is clear through the listening process; the lautenwerk is an intimate instrument and therefore bears a similarity to the clavichord. The highly esteemed early music specialist Robert Hill used a lautenwerk for some of his Bach performances as part of Hänssler's Bach Anniversary series a few years ago, and the instrument has an inherently enticing and lovely tone. Also, there is ample justification for using the lautenwerk for a Bach keyboard work in that Bach's estate reveals that he had two of them in his home.

Some folks do have reservations about the lautenwerk, and they revolve around the premise that this intimate way of making music is not conducive for powerfully demonstrative compositions. There is certainly validity to the reservations, but we need to remember that the environment's acoustics and the approach of the artist are the most important aspects determining the worth of a performance.

The lautenwerk constructed by Willard Martin has an 8-foot gut with two plucking positions, 4-foot brass, two manuals with handstops, and a pitch of A=370. Be assured that this particular lautenwerk has a lovely tone of sublime intimacy which offers performers an excellent opportunity to provide listeners with a distinctive and compelling set of interpretations.

As for Gwendolyn Toth, she is one of the leaders in America's Early Music Movement. A graduate of Yale University, Toth has been an academic teacher at Yale, Mount Holyoke College, Barnard College, and the Mannes College of Music. Presently, she teaches harpsichord at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Toth has performed on all the different types of keyboard instruments in use during the Baroque period and employs the principles of fingering, articulation, and phrasing associated with accurate historical performance styles. In addition to concertizing throughout most of the world, Toth is the director and founder of New York City's virtuoso period instrument ensemble ARTEK which has recorded Monteverdi's Orfeo on the Lyrichord Early Music Series label.

I've heard a couple of Goldbergs in recent months that don't delve much into the human angst and underside of Bach's music, but Toth's version is the only one that entirely sweeps those themes under the rug. Her vertical elasticity and bounce are impressive, but her horizontal elasticity is narrow indeed. Toth takes the main road and never deviates from it. In some of the more poignant variations, she actually constricts the music through a mechanical sounding and rigid rhythmic flow.

In most cases, this lack of emotional 'breadth and depth" would lead me to recommend passing on the recording. However, there is always the potential for other features to offset what is lacking, and I find that Toth's recording conveys ample offsets. First, the use of a lautenwerk for the Goldbergs is infrequent, and Toth knows expertly how to keep making the music sounding fresh. Second, there is a dignity and elegance to her readings that are quite irresistible. Third, even when Toth possesses a rigid rhythmic flow, she manages to make it sound more distinctive than restrictive. Most important, Toth clearly conveys her joy of being intimate with Bach's music; this isn't an ostentatious display, but one that radiates with confidence and warmth.

Starting with the Aria, Toth gives us a high level of poise and poetry over a foundation of optimism. Her rhythmic flow and inner joy permeate her performances of the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Variations, and I consider the interpretations among the best on record.

Other noteworthy performances include the 6th Variation where Toth brings out the unique qualities of the lautenwerk with an exquisitely delicate reading highlighted by a deliciously woody soprano part that is thoroughly enjoyable. Although delicate, Toth pushes the music forward with a compelling sense of drive and gives us a 'one of a kind' performance.

The 12th Variation is an uplifting and joyous affair, and Toth's optimism radiates with brilliance. In the 15th Variation, we meet Toth's mechanical rhythms I mentioned earlier. Yes, it can sound rather perfunctory and clipped in the manner of a wind-up doll, but she applies a very attractive bounce and urgency to the beat that overcomes the rigidity. In the 16th Variation Overture, Toth appeals with her regal rhythms and strong accenting, handling the double-dotted French style most convincingly.

The 21st Variation, "Canone allasettima", is my favorite in the set with its bitter-sweet refrains and a wonderful outpouring of hope in the 2nd Section. Toth again takes the mechanical rhythmic approach and constricts the music. But I still love her interpretation; it perfectly captures the contrasting moods, and her beat is intoxicating yet quite lively. This is one of the most rewarding and distinctive versions I have come across.

The upbeat Variations 22 thru 24 find Toth possessing an 'inner glow' that permeates this listener's bloodstream. The 25th Variation, "The Black Pearl", is not as successful. This is the one variation in the work that absolutely requires a strong injection of angst and despair, and Toth doesn't offer those qualities. The playing is charming, and some might call it enchanting. However, she misses the essential nature of the piece without giving it an equally valid purpose. The remaining variations go splendidly as Toth continues to highlight the joy of life in Bach's music.

Unfortunately, things don't end well. The Martin lautenwerk needs some fine-tuning at this point, and the Aria da capo suffers for the lack of it. Initially I thought something might be wrong with my hearing, but a comparison with the opening Aria puts the problem squarely on the instrument's shoulders and even more on the record company itself. There is simply no excuse for this sour presentation from the recording medium.

Don's Conclusions: Although not sufficiently well-rounded to recommend as one's sole recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, the radiant performances of Gwendolyn Toth represent an excellent supplement to existing versions in your music library. I wouldn't place the recording in the 'must have' category, but it isn't very far behind. Do beware of the sour Aria da capo; one listen and you won't play it again.


Feedback to the above Review

Jan Hanford wrote (January 14, 2004):
Has anyone heard the recording of the Goldberg Variations performed on lautenwerk by Gwendolyn Toth? It's amazing.

Aryeh Oron wrote (January 14, 20):
[To Han Hanford] This recording was reviewed last month by Donald Satz.

Jan Hanford wrote (January 15, 2004):
[To Aryeh Oron] Great review.

Has anyone on this list heard the recording? Comments anyone?

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 15, 2004):
[To Jan Hanford] I haven't yet; Don's words "rigid rhythmic flow" have induced me not to make it a high priority. I'll probably listen to it someday anyway, somewhere....

I like the sound of Lautenwerke in general, and have played some (including some by that same builder, who makes very fine harpsichords). They're fun to play. But one thing about them really bothers me: the way on at least one of the registers (on this builder's Lw, anyway) there is no way for the player to control the release of the notes, as there are no dampers. The player is thereby derived of a huge amount of flexibility in articulation and's just a warm wash of sound, or nothing. Why play a piece, especially one this complex, on an instrument that is only halfway suited to the job: offering control of only the front end of the notes?

Jan Hanford wrote (January 15, 2004):
Bradley Lehman said: < Why play a piece, especially one this complex, on an instrument that is only halfway suited to the job: offering control of only the front end of the notes? >

I suggest the "why" might be that they found it lovely and charming, as I do.

The instrument, in this case, may have limitations that are unacceptable to you but, apparently, there are others who feel differently or the recording would probably not have happened.

Donald Satz wrote (January 15, 2004):
[To Bradley Lehman] I agree with Brad that the lautenwerk has limitations, but the performer is more important than the instrument. In this case, I feel that Toth's artistry wins out.


Goldberg Variations BWV 988: Details
1900-1949 | 1950-1959 | 1960-1969 | 1970-1979 | 1980-1989 | 1990-1994 | 1995-1999 | 2000-2005 | 2005-2009 | 2010-2014 | 2015-2019
Comparative Review: Goldberg Variations on Piano:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Comparative Review: Round-Up of Goldberg Variations Recordings:
Recordings | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
GV - R. Barami, J. Crossland, O. Dantone, D. Propper | GV - M. Cole | GV - J. Crossland | GV - E. Dershavina | GV - S. Dinnerstein | GV - R. Egarr [Lehman] | GV - R. Egarr [Satz] | GV - R. Egarr [Bright] | GV - Feltsman | GV- P. Hantai | GV - P. Hantaï (2nd) | GV - K. Haugsand | GV - A. Hewitt | GV - R. Holloway | GV- H. Ingolfsdottir | GV- K. Ishizaka | GV - J. Jando | GV - B. Lagacé | GV - G. Leonhardt | GV- K. Lifschitz | GV - A. Newman | GV - T. Nikolayeva 3rd | GV- J. Payne | GV - W. Riemer | GV - C. Rousset | GV - S. Schepkin, M. Yudina & P. Serkin | GV - A. Schiff [ECM] | GV- H. Small | GV - M. Suzuki | GV - G. Toth | GV - K.v. Trich | GV - R. Tureck [Satz] | GV - R. Tureck [Lehman] | GV- B. Verlet | GV - A. Vieru | GV - J. Vinikour | GV - A. Weissenberg | GV - Z. Xiao-Mei
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Quodlibet in GV | GV for Strings
Discussions of Individual Recordings:
GV - D..Barenboim | GV - P.J. Belder | GV - E. Dershavina | GV - S. Dinnerstein | GV - R. Egarr | GV - V. Feltsman | GV - C. Frisch | GV - G. Gould | GV - P. Hantaï | GV - R. Holloway | GV - J. Jando | GV - K. Jarrett | GV - G. Leonhardt | GV - V. Makin | GV - A. Newman | GV - S. Ross | GV - A. Schiff | GV - R. Schirmer | GV - H. Small | GV - G. Sultan | GV - G. Toth | GV - R. Tureck | GV - S. Vartolo | GV - B. Verlet
The Quodlibet as Represented in Bach’s Final Goldberg Variation BWV 988/30 [T. Braatz]

Gwendolyn Toth: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Bach's Goldberg Variations on the Lautenwerk
Discussions of Instrumental Recordings:
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 - played by G. Toth

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