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Goldberg Variations BWV 988

Rosalyn Tureck (Harpsichord)

Tureck vs. harpsichord in the Goldbergs


J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations

Goldberg Variations BWV 988

Rosalyn Tureck (Harpsichord)


Mar 1978

2-LP / TT: 82:59

3rd recording of Goldberg Variations BWV 988 by R. Tureck
Review: Young Rosalyn Tureck’s Goldberg Variations
Discussions: Goldberg Variations BWV 988 - played by Rosalyn Tureck

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 23, 2001):
For some perspective on Rosalyn Tureck's Goldberg Variations on piano, here's what she sounds like in her 1979 recording of them on harpsichord.

I have this on Columbia 35900, a two-LP set. She takes 83 minutes and observes all repeats. The set also includes the Aria and Variations in the Italian Style, BWV 989, another 17 minutes.

What does it sound like?

I was listening to the Goldbergs and my wife was in the next room. I didn't know she was paying attention at all, and she has no idea what recordings of the Goldbergs we have, and she's never heard of Tureck. She called me over and said, "That sounds like a woman player who is very good but doesn't really play harpsichord." I said she was exactly right, she beamed, and I asked what clues gave away the player. "She has a delicate touch so I was pretty sure it's not a man. And she plays all the notes and chords right together so doesn't sound like a harpsichord player."

Yes. It sounds like what it is: a good pianist playing all the notes (and then some) on harpsichord with a delicate touch, but without really understanding how to let the harpsichord be expressive. The result sounds like a vast intellectual exercise, objective and unemotional. I've had this set for at least a dozen years and this play-through reminded me again why I hardly ever listen to it. 1) It doesn't sound like a harpsichordist, and 2) it's boring. And 3), see below.

About repeats, Tureck says in the jacket notes:

"This is the third time I have recorded the Goldberg Variations, twice before on the piano and now on the harpsichord, each time with repeats. The infinite beauty and richness of this work may be most fully perceived and experienced through the unification of diverse ideas. This process of unification can only be achieved through the artistic perception and fitting treatment, both structurally and stylistically, of the repeats in all the variations as these are indicated in the musical text. Whether in the concert hall or in the personal atmosphere of one's home the listening experience becomes complete as a result of the totality of the unified view.

"The repeat is not here conceived or treated as a simplistic repetition or echo or 'contrast' to the first playing. It is a fresh view of the kaleidoscopic relationships of the structure. Additionally the historical performance practice of added embellishments is an authentic stylistic device for repeats under certain conditions. This practice is implanted within the very structure of the Aria and 10 Variations in the Italian Style, and here I apply embellishments in the repeats according to the individual demands of the motivic figurations in each variation. The Goldberg Variations, however, as a mature work are composed with incomparably more density of ideas and structural relationships, not only within each variation but also in the relationships of variation to variation. To overembellish the repeats in this composition is to abuse the application of performance practice meant for more loosely composed forms and would result in muddying clear waters already rich with multiform life. Moreover, in a work so tightly structured, luxuriant added embellishment is a misdirected device historically, and may deteriorate to a tasteless, personal self-indulgence on the part of the performer. There are other and varied ways of performing repeats. My treatment of the repeats affords a fresh view of each variation sometimes by way of registration, or articulation, or dynamics, etc., etc., and always the repeat treatment is considered: 1) in relation to the diverse structural implications of each variation; and 2) in relation to the surrounding variations. The shape of the entire work is formed by the infinite subtlety of relationships of movement to movement and therefore can be understood more fully when conceived in terms of its totality and uninterrupted progress from the opening aria to its eloquent return. For this reason I perform this music, whether in concert or on records, with all repeats integrated within the entire concept."

Nice words. And those are basically good goals, although I believe there should be more feeling the right things to play rather than thinking out embellishments from only a structural point of view.

But does Tureck follow her own words and avoid overembellishing the repeats? No! She overloads the work with so much graffiti that it indeed "muddies clear waters already rich with multiform life." She restricts herself to signed ornamentation (mordents, trills, etc., anything that can be indicated in the score by a symbol) rather than changing melody and rhythm, and her intellectual restraint is useful there, but she puts in so much signed ornamentation that it indeed "deteriorates to a tasteless, personal self-indulgence." How will the next phrase be disfigured in the quest for structural clarity? And the next? All I could think of after the first half hour of this was Marcel Duchamp's work where he added a mustache to the Mona Lisa. Get to the daggone downbeats without putting four-note trills onto them, already!

As the 83 minutes ended, I could admire the overall consistency of concept while disliking just about every moment along the way. The "multiform life" is pretty much dead in the water when all the honest notes are played strictly in tempo and all the added notes have no spontaneity. Real life has irrationality and unpredictability that enlivens structures. Real things don't move or grow with that much mechanical symmetry. Tureck's playing doesn't dance or sigh or belch or grin, it just goes on and on and on. Her articulation is occasionally interesting but (like everything else) it doesn't sound natural.

Tureck does achieve her goal of making the performance sound structural. It's one way to play this piece, post-modern, I suppose. Tureck uses the harpsichord as a neutral instrument for an interpretation that's a mental exercise (like the way Gould played Händel on harpsichord), rather than letting it sing and speak. She plays against the instrument, not with it. The performance is a huge mind game with hardly anything for the body or emotions. That's a fatal flaw.


Feedback to the above Review

Donald Satz wrote (July 23, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] I'd like to hear this Tureck harpsichord recording. Is it available on CD? I gladly got rid of my obsolete LP equipment almost two decades ago.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 23, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] The Library of Congress lists only the LP version; I've never seen it on CD either, nor did I find it in any web searches just now.

How is LP equipment "obsolete" if it's the only way to hear some recordings? Some of my favorite recordings of various things have never been on CD and probably never will.

For example, Pablo Casals (with Horszowski and Schneider) gave a chamber music concert in JFK's White House in November 1961. It's sublime. The Mendelssohn half of that concert has shown up on CD but not the rest of it. And the LP foldout has a great photo of Casals whispering something into JFK's ear as Martita and Jackie both look on, beaming. The back cover says: "This Columbia High Fidelity recording is scientifically designed to play with the highest quality of reproduction on the phonograph of your choice, new or old. If you are the owner of a new stereophonic system, this record will play with even more brilliant true-to-life fidelity. In short, you can purchase this record with no fear of its becoming obsolete in the future."

Donald Satz wrote (Jul23, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] In my situation, I only had Rock LP's when the CD era began. LP's never had my affection; I much prefer CD's. How many LP's can fit in the car glove compartment? None.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 23, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] Here's some further description, probably making the actual listening to it virtually unnecessary.

Start from the Tureck recording at William F Buckley's house. Her interpretation there is fairly close to the one on harpsichord, intellectually. Her strange articulative choices are nearly the same, and she inserts her "structural" ornamentation graffiti at most of the same places. However, on piano she can shade everything with dynamics and tone, making it sound graceful; on harpsichord her articulations and graffiti just stick out oppressively. So, mentally just take that performance and subtract all the dynamic subtlety. Imagine everything considerably more chunky and "notey" rather than forward-flowing, since she strikes the notes of both hands almost always simultaneously on the harpsichord (the way a pianist does, but a harpsichordist does not...). She didn't know how to make long notes seem louder/more sustained than other notes in the texture; the front ends of the notes all sound the same. Insert even bigger pauses and ritards at the double bars (even within variations), chopping the music into sections. In the harpsichord recording she makes sure we see the compositional bricks as individual bricks, at the expense of the flow that is pretty decent in the Buckley performances. Finally, imagine more than half the beauty drained out of the piece. Tureck knew how to project some emotion on the piano but not on harpsichord; the harpsichord recording is just an objective presentation of all the notes with Tureck's quirks added to the text.

Or if you don't have the one from Buckley's house, start from the 1998 DG but mentally speed up most of the variations 5% to 10%. As before, take away all the dynamic and tonal inflections. Also take away most of the serenity. Then proceed as noted above.

As I noted in the review this morning, Tureck plays a generic interpretation that exists in her imagination, and the instrument is only the tool for expressing it. On the piano she can explore every corner of the Platonic ideal structure in her mind, caressing every detail and investing it with meaning. On the harpsichord she can only sketch in some of the most salient points while leaving everything else neutral.

Tureck's marvelous control of the piano is wasted and inaudible on the harpsichord. The harpsichord sounds like a primitive and substantially inferior instrument under her hands, which it is (under the hands of a pianist, not in general!). It's not necessarily Tureck's fault; it's just what happens whenever good pianists play harpsichord without really learning what a harpsichord can do, without treating the harpsichord as an _entirely_ different instrument since there is a different technique for basic expression. Without harpsichord technique Tureck's performance is just a monochromatic dull trudge, and time seems to go by very slowly.

Here in the Goldbergs on harpsichord it's as if we're hearing a bad Tureck clone whose best feature is erased. Tureck's greatest strength is and always has been her phenomenal ability to weight every finger and every note perfectly in the counterpoint. On harpsichord that's gone, and what remains is only an objective and neutral intellectual dissection of the piece. Tureck makes Bach sound wholly academic and dry. She fusses with registration (especially with too much 4-foot tone) to inject some variety and illustrate some more of her structure, but it ends up sounding more shrill and fussy than pleasing.

It's like the people in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" after they've been transformed. Or maybe a two-dimensional black and white photocopy of a three-dimensional color object. Whatever, it's not particularly appealing. Perhaps it's best that this isn't available on CD. Listen to Tureck on piano where she allows Bach to sound alive, and where we can hear more directly into her musical imagination.

Satoshi Akima wrote (July 24, 2001):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< How is LP equipment "obsolete" if it's the only way to hear some recordings? Some of my favorite recordings of various things have never been on CD and probably never will. >
Absolutely dead on! I have only really ever owned CD's in my life although I listened to my parent's LP's growing up. I had always been a big digital advocate until I heard a comparison between a US$ 700 turntable and a US$2000 dollar CD player from Meridian (listed as a class A player by the magazine Stereophile). I was flabbergasted to hear the turntable beat the CD player outright. I still don't own an LP player but I now appreciate the claims of those audiophiles who have been campaigning about the inferiority of the sound of the 16 bit Sony-Phillips Red Book format for years. I think that digital technology is slowly beginning to catch up but for now an LP played on a decent turntable will produce a vastly superior sound for a far less cost. So for those of you out there who still have a stash of old LP's out there don't hesitate to buy yourself a new or second hand high end turntable (such as one from Linn amongst others) to listen to your collection of gems. I strongly recommend the magazine Stereophile if you want recommendations for turntables at different prices ranging up to those costing about a couple of hundred thousand dollars!!! Don't listen to the big corporate propaganda telling you that LP's are no good.


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]

Rosalyn Tureck: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Review: WTC Book I - Tureck (1975-1976) | Young Rosalyn Tureck’s Goldberg Variations | Tureck vs harpsichord in the Goldbergs
Discussions of Instrumental Works:
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 - played by Rosalyn Tureck

Instrumental Works: Recordings, Reviews & Discussions - Main Page | Order of Discussion
Recording Reviews of Instrumental Works: Main Page | Organ | Keyboard | Solo Instrumental | Chamber | Orchestral, MO, AOF
Performers of Instrumental Works: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z


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