Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Round-Up of Goldberg Variations Recordings, Part 3
Continue from Part 2
Donald Satz wrote (July 29, 2001):
7th Variation - This variation can certainly be played as a 'good time' piece of music, but many performers add some poignancy through stretching the music with their right hand accenting and longer note values.
Level 1 - Hill and Ingolfsdottir use very short note values which sound rather clipped and reduce the stretching from the right hand. Schiff is a non-starter with irritating repeats at the highest register. Another unworthy issue comes from Tureck IV. She must have jolted the St. Petersburg audience with a performance loaded with note-banging; this is highly uncharacteristic of Tureck. Lifschitz is over 2 1/2 minutes; he's just too slow; the mind wanders with his repeat of the first theme. Dershavina sounds 'precious', and Tureck I is too soft-spoken. Although showing command of structure, I don't find Landowska/EMI sufficiently expressive. Vinikour tends to sound rushed as if he's trying to get ahead of himself. Richter takes the 'plucked' route through most of the variation; that's an approach I generally don't appreciate.
Feltsman is quite a character. With the 7th Variation, he adds a twist to using the highest register in the repeats; he actually comes up with his own home-spun variation in the first repeat. So if you feel like listening to Feltsman and not Bach, this is your opportunity. It's a shame, because Feltsman's first theme is the equal of anyone's.
Continuing along, Serkin is aggressive one moment, delicate and precious the next; I don't think it works. Tureck/DG has at least one too many notes and trills. Perahia sounds very jumpy to me and abrupt.
Level 2 - The excellent versions with a fine blend of joy and poignancy come from Tureck III, Xiao Mei, Suzuki, Koroliov, Koopman, Gould III, Gilbert, Leonhardt I, Hewitt, Curtis, Cole, Pinnock, Rosen, Leonhardt/Teldec, Landowska/RCA, Verlet, Yudina, Valenti, and Hantai. I just want to mention that Tureck is much better here; projection is good, there's no note-banging, and eccentricities are absent. Two other versions, Vieru and Nikolayeva, convey much more sadness than their alternatives; it works well in both cases.
Level 3 - Luc Beausejour and Scott Ross give what I consider role-model performances enhanced by a ceremonial swagger. Gould I is quite slow with great accenting and the swagger. Gould II has no swagger, but it's beautifully pensive with imaginative phrasing. Some may consider Jarrett's performance to be lacking some in animation; however, I hear it as being supremely relaxing while maintaining fine angularity and accenting.
Two more exceptional versions are provided by Ragna Schirmer and Maria Tipo. Schirmer is flat-out gorgeous, easily the most beautiful version. Tipo is unusual: hushed, mysterious, and pristine; the combination is compelling.
8th Variation - Exciting and powerful music with a delicate streak which results in an infectious brew. The fastest versions, if performed very well, provide a sense of perpetual motion that's quite invigorating. The slowest excellent versions deliver great detail, expressiveness, and allow the listener to savor the work.
Level 1 - Schiff is much too episodic for my tastes; the passages do not naturally flow into one another. Koroliov is too forceful, and Nikolayeva has a couple of awkward moments even though her performance is a slow one. Valenti slows down during the second theme; that's a move that I don't find to have any good trade-offs to the damage to the music's flow. Lifschitz is very fast, carefree, and superficial; the even faster version from Gould I maintains command of structure while Lifschitz doesn't seem to have any foundation.
Although Gould III is a fine performance, the prevalent sound interference penetrates the music's core. Maria Tipo covers the range from note-banging to hushed deliveries; I'll pass on it. Perahia's changes in dynamics go too far for my tastes, and his right hand tends to disappear in the first theme.
Level 2 - Included are Richter, Ross, Feltsman, Dershavina, Rosen, Xiao Mei, Yudina, Hewitt, Serkin, Gould I & II, Vieru, Koopman, Jarrett, Hill, Ingolfsdottir, Beausejour, both Leonhardts, Schirmer, Verlet, Suzuki, and the Tureck versions except for her DG performance. Concerning the Turecks, I and III are much quicker than II and IV; the slower two are more expressive. However, the sound quality for the St. Petersburg performance is a little raw and no match for DG's superb sound.
Making the repeats distinctive involves taking risk, and Feltsman has consistently varied his repeats. However, I haven't reacted well to his decisions which have until now mainly consisted of a higher register regimen. With the 8th Variation's first theme repeat, Feltsman provides a new distinction - much greater emphasis from the bass line. I think it sounds ridiculous and damages what is otherwise an exceptionally exciting performance.
Charles Rosen isn't far from the top level but is hampered by a strange lack of vitality toward the beginning of the first theme repeat; it really kills the mood temporarily. Ingolfsdottir has an interesting and consistent hesitation which becomes the cornerstone of her interpretation. Hill's first theme is exhilarating, but he has some moments of slow-motion in the second theme which damage momentum without adding any poignancy.
Level 3 - There are eight versions here, and I would have trouble choosing among them. Both Landowska issues and Pinnock's are fast with perpetual motion the dominant element. Gilbert, Curtis, and Cole adopt average tempos but still deliver a great deal of excitement. Tureck and Hantai slow it down and we get to really savor the music.
Level 3 Plus - Is this allowed? Yes, because there's one performance which seems to me have all the excellent traits of the level 3's combined. That would be the Vinikour interpretation. Before you start thinking that Mr. Vinikour couldn't possibly be at the top, please consider the following. He is not your deepest Bach performing artist, but the 8th Variation is not a deep piece of music. Also, Vinikour tends to do best with the music of least depth and breadth of emotion which tends to breeze along. The match here is perfect; excitement is high, momentum never goes below full capacity, the poetry is exceptional, and Vinikour even allows me to savor the music with an average tempo. I was very surprised when I liked this performance so much the first time I listened in this review. But the more I play it, the more I'm convinced that it's the version for all seasons.
9th Variation - I find the basic emotional element of this beautiful variation to be human longing which is finally satisfied at the conclusion of the second theme. The music well accomodates a sense of urgency, sadness, comfort, and even ceremony.
Level 1 - Although enjoyable enough, I have to place Ingolfsdottir at the bottom level. The pace is slow, the sound quite rich, and all it is rather vacant. Ingolfsdottir shows no identification with any strong emotions, up-front or subtle. Vinikour is largely in the same boat; it sounds as if it would kill him to show a little emotion. He went from top to bottom very fast. Feltsman again creates his own melodies on top of Bach's in both repeats; that's a level of intrusiveness I don't think well of and he can't compare with Bach.
Level 2 - Gould II, Rosen, Leonhardt II, Ross, Hantai, Curtis, Suzuki, Schiff, Yudina, Perahia, Gilbert, Lifschitz, Koroliov, Gould III, Hewitt, Pinnock, Serkin, Schirmer, Verlet, Hill, Xiao Mei, Valenti, Nikolayeva, Dershavina, Richter, Beausejour, Koopman, and both Landowska versions. These are very rewarding issues which don't quite reach the depth of the music. Gould II has an interesting performance with much staccato and a quick paced walking gait. Xiao Mei, Perahia, Hewitt, and Schirmer give gorgeous readings of fine delicacy.
Hill has a distinctive rhythmic vitality, and Nikolayeva displays a great deaof horizontal expressiveness. Yudina is fast, bold, and urgent; this version would be at the top level except for some fierce sound when the higher notes are strongly projected. Schiff is also quick and insistent as he punches out the music attractively. although not one of the best performances, Lifschitz comes up with his best so far - plenty of momentum, expressiveness, joy, and drama. It's just that another version, Gould I, is along the same lines and better.
Level 3 - Each of the four Tureck versions is slow paced, incisive, highly detailed, and very comforting; if pressed to choose, I'd go with Tureck/DG which has the best sound by far. Jarrett's performance is also highly comforting and gives me such good feelings. Vieru is exquisitely sad, Gould I is urgent and dramatic with a perpetual motion, and Cole's version has 'ceremony' in its blood. Tipo comes up with another dream-like performance which takes me to other lands. Leonhardt I is a 'role-model' performance of total command and ceremonial pacing.
Update: The Tureck versions are doing very well; each is among the best piano versions, and Tureck/DG is the best of all forty two versions. Among the other piano versions, I have Schirmer in the lead closely followed by Gould II, Jarrett, Vieru, and Hewitt. Holding up the rear are Feltsman and Lifschitz. It is reasonable to project that Feltsman might do much better as he progresses if he only stops messing around with the repeats.
Among the harpsichord versions, Scott Ross is the leader with Leonhardt I, Curtis, Pinnock, Landowska II, Cole, and Gilbert close behind. Vinikour and Ingolfsdottir are toward the bottom. I'm having very mixed feelings about the Ingolfsdottir performances; each is enjoyable, but the sound is too rich and she often does not supply much depth of feeling.
Feedback to the above Review
Bradley Lehman wrote (July 31, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] As I read this posting I'm a little thrown by your unconventional terminology..."first theme" and "second theme" usually refer to sections of pieces that are in sonata form, which the Goldberg Variations aren't.
Do you mean simply the "first half" and "second half" of each variation, the 8- or 16-bar sections that are (optionally) repeated? Or do you in fact mean themes, as in distinct melodic and rhythmic ideas within the halves, as music theorists use the term?
In the earlier installments I don't remember references to "themes," which is why it's surprising to see this word suddenly popping up many times now.... As I read your surveys I go through the variations in my head "listening to" the music and imagining the different performances from your descriptions. Some of the variations can be analyzed convincingly as having several themes, but others can't.
To avoid confusion, why not just get a score and tell us exactly what places (bar numbers or the note names) you're talking about when interesting or strange things happen in the performances? That would be useful.
(The excerpts that throw me on the word "theme" are below.)
< Donald Satz wrote:
home-spun variation in the first repeat. So if you feel like listening to Feltsman and not Bach, this is your opportunity. It's a shame, because Feltsman's first theme is the equal of anyone's.
Valenti slows down during the second theme; that's a move that I don't find to have any good trade-offs to the damage to the music's flow.
to hushed deliveries; I'll pass on it. Perahia's changes in dynamics go too far for my tastes, and his right hand tends to disappear in the first theme.
regimen. With the 8th Variation's first theme repeat, Feltsman provides a new distinction - much greater emphasis from the bass line.
Hill's first theme is exhilarating, but he has some moments of slow-motion in the second theme which damage momentum without adding any poignancy. >
Donald Satz wrote (July 31, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] I can't figure how Brad could be confused at all about the word 'theme'. I've read it hundreds of times in other reviews on Bach works, particularly in relation to the Goldberg Variations - AABB. I didn't make this stuff up.
For reference, I used the 'theme' word many times in Part 1 & 2 of this review and consider its use entirely applicable and ever so easy for the non-expert listener to understand.
Bradley Lehman wrote (July 31, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] Looking back at the earlier installments, I see that you do use the word "theme" more than I remembered. But I must not have noticed it back then because I read the word "theme" the way it means in music theory, and some of the variations you applied it to earlier can be parsed into themes (sort of).
It stood out today because you were applying it to variation 7 and I was humming through the music and going "wait a minute!" I'd call the "second theme" of variation 7 the part where it starts swooping upward with fast notes in the right hand (bar 5), new rhythm, as opposed to the consistent dotted figure. But it seems that you're using "second theme" to mean the SECOND HALF OF THE VARIATION, the B section. And that's something else altogether...especially since Bach starts the B section of var 7 with the same theme as the A section. See, that's why I was confused by reading your review!
And then I had to go back and figure out what you might be referring to in var 8 and 9 where "theme" similarly comes up in your review. Nothing made sense until I realized you are using the word "theme" in a non-standard way. Then things fell into place better.
It's like going into a place that seems familiar and then suddenly realizing that this really isn't the same planet, things only look superficially the same but really aren't the same upon inspection. I believe that the established term for this mental "whoa!" state is "cognitive dissonance" ... see more about it at
...the natural first reaction is confusion. Things seem normal but one suddenly realizes they aren't!
Can't we agree that the established musical terms such as "theme" mean what they mean to musicians, since we're talking about music? Or do we have to have a separate lexicon for the "non-expert listener" where terms are used arbitrarily? What's the "non-expert listener" to do when reading a normal musicological work and seeing the word "theme" used as it's normally used, and being confused from having learned a wrong meaning here?
You use other musical words such as "staccato" and "dynamics" normally, so how is the reader to expect that the word "theme" among them is not being used normally?
Can you please point out some specific sources (other reviews, or whatever) where the AABB sections of binary repeated structure are seriously called "themes" as a whole? And as a practical matter, if you're going to call those A and B sections "themes," what do you call the themes within them? :)
Grumpily, and still trying to figure out how to translate the Satz lexicon,
Continue on Part 4