Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Round-Up of Goldberg Variations Recordings, Part 4
Continue from Part 3
Donald Satz wrote (August 8, 2001):
Very Late Arrivals!!! - Discs of the Goldbergs just seem to float down from the sky into my hands. A magnanimous list member sent me Christiane Jaccottet's recording on PILZ/Vienna Master Series. The catalog number is 160401 and the total time for the Goldbergs by Jaccottet is 43:36. Needless to say, observation of repeats is not part of Jaccottet's regimen. Also, there's a second cd in the set devoted to Bach organ works, but I'm not going to get into that area in this review. Suffice it to say that the set is very inexpensive and the organ music is a nice bonus.
Through the 9 variations, Jaccottet's performances are very good. Her readings are zesty, rhythmically alert, fairly angular, and vested with abundant emotional depth. The Aria and each variation is on Level 2 except for the 3rd, 6th, and 9th Variations which I consider superb and at Level 3. Jaccottet's 3rd Variation has a great bass line, wonderful interplay and clarity between the voices, and a degree of sadness close to Verlet's on Astree. The 6th Variation finds Jaccottet with an encompassing and churning bass line capped off with a stately and beautiful conclusion of ascending passages. Her 9th Variation merits the top level because of its irresistable blend of sadness and ceremony.
So far, I find the Jaccottet Goldberg Variations a major improvement on her WTC performances which were quite enjoyable in their own right. In fact, I am very impressed with the recording. I can't say I was looking forward to listening to Jaccottet as I had a preconception that she would be unexceptional. However, from the first bars of the opening Aria, it was clear that I would be in for some great interpretations. Up to this point, Jacottet has been as excellent as Leonhardt I, Curtis, and Pinnock.
A second disc sent my way is a piano recording of the Goldbergs by Tjako van Schie on Rondo 001; the performance was recorded in 1991. Rondo is a Netherlands company that some of you may be familiar with. Tjako van Schie, born in 1961, studied piano at the Zwolle Academy of Music. He has professionally performed as a soloist and accompanist. van Schie has been teaching at the Amsterdam Academy for the Arts since 1987 and co-founded a collective of musical artists named the Group of Ten. Mr. van Schie also finds time in his busy schedule to compose his own music.
The total time of the Rondo disc is 78:07, so Mr. van Schie's regimen concerning repeats is generally the opposite of Jaccottet's. Through the 9th Variation, van Schie's performances are uniformly excellent. Also, he is not routinely either slow or fast. The opening aria is very slow and luxuriating, but then the 1st Variation finds van Schie displaying fast speed and great rhythmic vitality. I consider his Aria and each variation at level 2 which means consistently excellent. So far, I haven't felt any magic from the readings, but they are in good standing compared to most of the other piano versions being reviewed.
A third disc consists of Joseph Payne's harpsichord version of the Goldbergs on BIS with a total time of 77:52. Payne's performances are considered highly distinctive from some sources based on his imaginative handling of repeats. Through the first nine variations, I only noticed this approach significantly in the first repeat of the Aria and can't say that it enhanced the work. To me, his additions were on the cute side and lowered the stature and elegance of the Aria. That's my sole reservation. Overall, Payne is excellent. Tempos are within the usual limits but are varied appropriately. He is consistently getting to the music's core, and his voice interplay is very interesting and often exciting and illuminating. Level 3 goes to his 3rd, 4th, and 9th variations; the remainder are at level 2. At this point, I have him on a par with Leonhardt I, Curtis, Jaccottet and Pinnock. That's very admirable company.
The fourth issue is from Daniel Barenboim on Erato with a total time of 80:23. I would be telling you that I find this recording outstanding through the first nine variations except for two reservations. First, Barenboim is often subdued and sounds reticent to me; this takes hold to one degree or another in every variation. Second, there have been a few times when he has simply been too loud and/or over-emoting. Even given those negative aspects, I am greatly enjoying his performances. Barenboim yields to no one in emotional depth and breadth. His Aria and 6th Variation are superb; the Aria reminds me much of Tureck's readings. The other variations are at level 2. This easily makes Barenboim's one of the better versions of the forty-seven.
The fifth recording comes from Glenn Gould in his live Salzburg peformance from Sony. I'll have to identify this one as Gould IV; total time is 37:15. So far, it's a fabulous performance, sort of the best of the other two Gould/Sony versions. Wherever either of those versions seems problematic for me, the Salzburg performance eliminates the problem. Gould's 2nd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th variations are at the top level with the Aria and other variations close behind. This has been the best version of the lot excepting for Tureck/DG.
The last late entry, on harpsichord, is in the person of Sergio Vartolo on the Tactus label with a recording date of 1989. The catalog number is 68021990 and total time for this 2-disc set is 101:41. Of the now 48 versions, Vartolo is the sole artist to top the 100 minute mark. He certainly uses slow tempos and observes every repeat, but going over 100 minutes is also helped by a hesitation technique that Vartolo employs in the Aria and every single variation. I don't have anything per se against hesitations; many of the variations are tailor-made for this approach, and Vartolo presents them expertly. However, using them in every variation might well be too much of a good thing. Listening to his performances straight-through leaves me with a hesitation in my walking step and the impression that the hesitations become an affectation of sorts. With that negative out of the way, there's no doubt in my mind that Vartolo gives commanding interpretations. He knows what he wants to do and goes about his business with precision and a thorough grasp of the idiom.
I gave the best rating to Vartolo in the 6th & 7th variations. The 6th is perfect for his hestiations, and he uses them sparingly in the 7th Variation. Level 2 is where his other performances rest.
10th Variation - This piece used to be one of my least favorite variations, but I've come to love it. Angularity, demonstrative delivery, joy, and the heroic are the elements I'm addicted to.
Level 1 - Nothing against the performance on Gould I, but it sounds as if the notes have been infected with a strong virus; my ears were begging for a change. The ears also did not react very well to Koroliov's more than demonstrative first repeat; in addition, Koroliov falls victim to the piano's reduced potential, compared to the harpsichord, to provide a sharp performance. As I hear it, the compensation for his smooth reading is just the aggressiveness. Schiff is close to his worst in the 10th; the dynamics are extreme, and the interplay between voices doesn't sound well integrated. Peter Serkin is just too sedate for me; there is some minimum degree of demonstrative attitude needed to capture the music's essence.
Level 2 - Included are Cole, Perahia, Jaccottet, Vinikour, Schirmer, Yudina, Jarrett, Vieru, Hewitt, Beausejour, Pinnock, Tureck/DG, Richter, Curtis, Suzuki, Gould IV, van Schie, Lifschitz, Dershavina, Gould II, Tipo, Feltsman, Vartolo, Nikolayeva, Rosen, Payne, Barenboim, Xiao Mei, Leonhardt II, Hantai, Ross, and Gilbert. Tureck/DG isn't as demonstrative as in her three other versions and she tends to drag a little in comparison. Mr. van Schie could have been at the top level except for some very short periods of reduced strength when I didn't expect nwant them; momentum takes short holidays. The Xiao Mei performance pleasantly surprised me; in my original review, I considered her first repeat too soft-spoken. Now, it doesn't bother me at all. Vinikour is toward the top of this level with a quick and effervescent reading. Leonhardt II is also excellent but not as compact or driven as in his Vanguard release.
Level 3 - There are plenty of fantastic versions: both Landowskas, Ingolfsdottir, Valenti, Verlet, Koopman, Leonhardt I, Gould II, and the Tureck versions except for Tureck/DG. Of course, the Tureck versions are slow and highly expressive and incisive. Landowska and Leonhardt are strongly and precisely driven; they are wonderful versions for examining the architecture.
Level 3 Plus - I have to give Robert Hill a special category. I couldn't ask for more effective angularity, but the very memorable aspect of this performance concerns the joy and energy provided. Hill goes futher than mere joy with a wild and fast abandon which he controls perfectly. Hill blows away all the competition. I can swap one Tureck for another, substitute Landowska for Leonhardt or Valenti for Koopman, but Hill is irreplaceable.
11th Variation - Much crossing of hands is required for this joyful variation, although a few storm clouds can appear in the second section.Concerning those clouds, I feel they should enter in a natural fashion.A few versions are quite soft-spoken, then all of a sudden there's big negatives surfacing; it sounds contrived and over-the-top. Excitement is an element that's always welcome, but most versions don't place much priority on it.
Level 1 - Vinikour's quick performance just sounds like a run-through. Nuance is almost non-existent, and the reading does not hold my interest. Schirmer is definitely an improvement over Vinikour, but there's nothing here to detain us. Further, her staccato approach to the first repeat is too pronounced. Feltsman's version has a number of problems, and his continued yearning for the highest register is the least of them. He's very fast but manages to avoid excitement; that might be due to a precious quality that's very unbecoming. Also, at the speed he uses, his technical command is less than commanding.
Earlier, I mentioned the little problem I had with Barenboim - his tendency to play both too softly and too loud. The little problem grows bigger with his 11th Variation. The agnst he supplies in the second section is all out of proportion to the mild-mannered approach he uses for the rest of the piece. Barenboim wants to have his cake and eat it too, but the cake is starting to spoil.
Level 2 - Leonhardt I has little warmth and consequently does not hold up very well to his Teldec performance. Gilbert strikes me as a little too quick to capture all the nuances of the variation, and his tempo does not pick up on any excitement. By comparison, Koopman is just a little faster than Gilbert and provides a bubbly reading, making Gilbert's somewhat reserved. Hill uses a slow tempo and halting pace to enhance poignancy; it has some advantages but also disturbs the music's flow without sufficient trade-offs.
Maria Yudina gives a rather exciting and quick paced reading with a strong degree of angst in the second section. With a slow and very heart-felt reading, I thought for sure that Nikolayeva would deliver all the angst that the second section offers; it never happened. Tipo's is a very pretty version well nuanced, but she gets too dramatic in the second section. Ross is on the quick side but does not convey the bounce of the Koopman version, sounding a little too smooth in comparison. I can't think of anything wrong with Beausejour's reading except that it doesn't reach for distinction or greatness.
Gould I is fast and excellent, but Gould III (bearable sound) is fast and much more exciting. Gould IV/Salzburg uses an effective staccato approach, but I prefer the more poetic reading of Gould II which also includes much staccato.
The four Tureck versions are also at level 2. Each one is slow and pensive; what holds each one down are first sections which don't display much life.
Other versions at level 2 include Landowska/EMI which sounds a little stiff compared to her RCA version, Curtis who surprisngly displays little angularity, van Schie who is tender and poignant, and Pinnock who has a very pleasurable and quick flow. Rounding out this level are Hewitt, Koroliov, Vieru, Verlet, Jarrett, Payne, Dershavina, Rosen, Ingolfsdottir, Perahia, Hantai, Jaccottet, Lifschitz, and Suzuki.
Level 3 - I mentioned that excitement was a favorable element, and Gould III easily conveys more of it than any of the other readings. Although the sound is no picnic, the problems do not penetrate the notes this time around. Richter's and Cole's performances are highly comforting and lovely with a moderate tempo; they show beautifully how to naturally move from sheer joy to a degree of angst; the same applies to Leonhardt II/Teldec who also conveys a pristine quality.
Andras Schiff uses a quick tempo and provides a delightfully joyful and energetic reading. Serkin, also quick, displays excellent momentum without losing sight of the music's beauty. Much the same can be said of Xiao-Mei who is even faster than Serkin. You won't find a happier reading with an infectious bounce than Koopman's. Gould II is quick with much staccato; unlike with his Salzburg performance, the level of poetry is high. Valenti is slow-paced and comforting with outstanding accenting, and Landowska/RCA gives a straight-ahead performance with strong inevitability. Vartolo's first theme is pure serenity, and his voice interplay is very interesting and detailed.
Well, this Part is about as long as I would prefer. Hopefully, I'll get through the 15th Variation in Part 5.
Continue on Part 5