Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Round-Up of Goldberg Variations Recordings, Part 5
Continue from Part 4
Donald Satz wrote (August 31, 2001):
Although no further recordings of the Goldbergs have fallen from the sky, I did buy a new reissue featuring Igor Kipnis:
Seraphim/EMI 74501 - Recorded 1974 - TT 84:11
The Kipnis performances thru the 11th Variation provide a fine contrast to Scott Ross. Whereas Ross is quite exuberant, Kipnis is more contemplative and a little deeper. Both have been excellent. I have Kipnis at the top level in the Aria and variations 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8. If he is exhibiting any drawbacks, they would be in the music which needs the greatest exuberance and strength. It's not that Kipnis does not provide these qualities, but that the soundstage can be fierce at those times, particularly from the bass. Overall, Kipnis has been exceptional with a ready knack to get to the heart of each variation.
12th Variation - One of Bach's most joyful creations. I do feel it needs some minimum level of vibrancy, and a few versions which are low in this regard don't make the top level. But overall, this is wonderful music which most of the reviewed artists perform splendidly.
Level 1 - Maria Tipo is very much out of character; she's fast, aggressive, and tends to bang notes loudly. Hers is the only version I did not enjoy greatly.
Level 2 - Peter Serkin's version is lovely and tender, Barenboim conveys much variety of expression and technique, and Pinnock is quite slow and reflective. Curtis conveys much excitement in the second section as do both Landowska versions. Jarrett's is a very comfortable reading, perhaps a little lacking in vibrancy. Robert Hill's reading is quite varied in tempo and dynamics. Tureck I is very slow with less vibrancy than her other three versions. If you want a demonstrative and confident version on harpsichord, look no further than Joseph Payne.
Others at this level are Dershavina, Jaccottet, Vartolo, Koopman, Ingolfsdottir, Vinikour, Suzuki, Beausejour, Schiff, Schirmer, Vieru, and both Leonhardts.
Level 3 - Each of the four Gould versions is at the top level. With the exception of Gould/CBC, each version greatly emphasizes precision and momentum with plenty of room for capturing the abundant lyricism of the variation. Gould I is the fastest and really streaks through its paces, IV is just a little slower, and II is the only one of the four to include the first repeat. Overall, my preference among the four is Gould's CBC issue which is significantly slower than the others and simply a gorgeous reading with a fine degree of momentum; the only problem is that the sound virus tends to invade quite a few of the notes.
The Turecks, except for the Philips issue, provide highly optimistic and incisive interpretations. Tureck II is as slow as on Philips, but conveys more life. The VAI versions are quicker and would likely be to the taste of more listeners.
Valenti's performance has an abundance of optimism and great rhythmic vitality. Joseph Payne is sharp, bold, and irresistable. Scott Ross and Pierre Hantai give role-model performances, and Karl Richter's reading is pristine and architecturally commanding. Maggie Cole's performance is the most exciting and urgent on harpsichord. Gilbert is about as serious as one can be in this variation, and it's very effective and highly poetic. Kipnis is thoroughly joyful and vibrant.
Lifschitz gives the most vibrant performance I know, and van Schie flows like silk. Rosen is slow paced, detailed, and vivid. Xiao Mei is fast with an irresistable pulse, and Yudina's right hand is like heaven and her trills are exceptional. Koroliov is fast and powerful with total focus on driving to the finish line; Perahia is more lyrical but less strong than Koroliov.
There are a lot of versions at level 3, but I do have a favored one. My current favorite comes from Blandine Verlet; her tempo is slow, both repeats are observed, and the optimism is simply uplifting and leaps out of the speakers. She easily surpasses the other versions in presenting pure satisfaction and joy. Verlet convinces me that Bach must have been gushing with joy when creating the 12th variation.
Before moving on, I want to relate that I'm going to start being a little less magnanimous in my ratings; I'm noticing an upward drift in the numbers. It's just that, overall, these are high quality interpretations.
13th Variation - To get the full flavor of this gorgeous music, its bitter-sweet mix must be fully captured. As you'll read below, seven versions have command of this element and much else also.
Level 1 - Although Schiff's reading is enjoyable, he does pull the rhythm around at times, and his ornamention is in the 'cute' category. I find Vartolo's *extremely* slow reading to lead to inertia. My reaction when he started the first repeat was, "Oh no, he's going to do it again". I'll likely catch a lot of flak for putting Gould IV here, but I think he sounds jittery and is too loud on occasion. Verlet also conveys a jittery quality and less depth than most other versions. Each of the Tureck versions is infected with the jitters; I know it's Tureck's approach and not a medical condition, but I still want no part of it.
Nikolayeva gets into 'romantic' territory; I'll pass on this one. Feltsman engages in a number of eccentricities which all add up to trying to be distinctive and only sounding a little fussy. Vinikour is all about surface appeal.
Level 2 - Yudina delivers strong urgency in an excellent and quick performance of action instead of contemplation. Schirmer and Leonhardt II are quite slow and reflective; they would be at the top level except that I prefer a greater degree of assertiveness and vibrancy such as provided by Barenboim's outstanding issue. Pinnock is attractively delicate and somewhat pristine with fine urgency. Dershavina, compared to Barenboim, is just a little less vibrant and a little more emotionally restrained. Although a little excessive on the trills, Koopman has the grand sweep of the music well endowed. van Schie gives me a great feeling of comfort with
his effortless and natural flow.
Xiao Mei, although giving a very gentle and comforting performance, doesn't elicit as much emotional depth as Serkin who is also very gentle. That last ounce of depth is also missing in Ingolfsdottir's animated performance and Beausejour's excellent reading. Gould II uses a staccato approach which I feel reduces the emotional tie-in. I've been enjoying Hewitt's performance more than in the past; there's a tension to even her gentler moments which I now find compelling. Rosen's version would be superb except for the start of the piece where he sounds curiously subdued; in the first repeat and thereafter, he finds the right spark.
Other excellent versions come from Suzuki, Lifschitz, Ross, Jarrett, Richter, Valenti, Curtis, Tipo, Cole, Gilbert, Koroliov, Payne, Perahia, Hantai, Jaccottet, Hill, and both Landowska readings.
Level 3 - Barenboim's reading is wonderful. It's slow, vibrant from the start, highly expressive, and urgent/assertive when called for. My usual reservation about his playing too soft/too loud never surfaces this time around. My comments about Barenboim apply equally to the Vieru performance; both are vivid listening experiences.
Another great version is Leonhardt's on Vanguard. It has more feeling, command, and angularity than Leonhardt's Teldec performance, although it is just as slow in tempo. Leonhardt gives me the impression that he is living the emotions expressed through the music; this is Leonhardt at his best.
Peter Serkin's is the most beautiful version and has great projection and depth of emotion for a soft-spoken and gentle reading. Nobody captures the bitter-sweet nature of the music better than Kipnis.
Two Gould versions, I and III, reach the top level and complement one another very well. Gould I is much quicker than III but loses no emotional impact. Both versions pull me in from the first notes.
14th Variation - This variation is fast, power, and quite upbeat except for what I'd call a 'sinister' element in the second section. With a wealth of trills and galloping passages, the piece requires some virtuosity in technique. Many versions seem to be a bit technically challenged, and many exhibit a soft belly on occasion. After the caressing finish of the 13th Variation, I like the 14th to start off powerfully from the gate and keep up the momentum non-stop.
Level 1 - Barenboim doesn't need to provide much virtuosity since he's slow and sputters his way through the music; other poor traits include romanticized phrasing and inertia - poignant he isn't. Nikolayeva is too relaxed and treats the music as a pretty picture to develop.
Level 2 - Valenti starts off like lightning, but it's a pace he either can't or refuses to stay with. Richter has a growling bass which is effective. Jarrett, both Leonhardts, and Curtis are on the slow side but maintain plenty of kick. Perahia, Schiff, Gilbert, Koopman, Suzuki, Dershavina, and Serkin are at the upper end of level 2 with exciting readings. Hewitt, Schirmer, and Lifschitz go soft at times. Van Schie gives one of the best performances in both repeats, but the first time around in each section is too subdued. Yudina has some technical challenges toward the conclusion of each section but is quite emphatic and exciting.
Vartolo's hesitations do nothing but retard the music's flow; it's a shame since the reading would have otherwise been outstanding. Again, Feltsman hits the highest register in the second repeat, but his performance is super-fast and a blast. Landowska/EMI suffers a little from recessed sound.
The four Tureck readings can't make the top spot mainly due to providing somewhat disjointed readings where each theme flows abruptly from the previous one. As for tempo, each is quite mainstream except for Tureck/DG who gives one of the slower performances.
Among the Gould issues, only Gould I makes the top level. In comparison, II and IV are not as vibrant and don't flow as well as Gould I. You couldn't ask for a better performance than from Gould/CBC, but you could ask for much better sound. Once again, some of the stronger notes possess the sound virus. There's also a raspy paper type distortion that's a pain.
Other readings at this level include Tipo, Rosen, Vieru, Payne, Ross, Ingolfsdottir, Verlet, Beausejour, Hill, Xiao Mei, Landowska/RCA, Pinnock, Kipnis, and Hantai.
Level 3 - My congratulations to Jaccottet, Gould I, Cole, Vinikour, and Koroliov. Each one is very exciting with ample power throughout and virtuosity in abundance. Koroliov is the most powerful of the five; be on alert to create some distance between yourself and the speakers. Gould I is the fastest and the sheer skill of his playing defies description. I likely would have created a higher level for Jaccottet except that she can't quite maintain at the conclusion of each section the tremendous energy she earlier establishes. As it is, hers is the version that is most memorable.
15th Variation - A very bleak piece which is consistently reaching out from its base to find some light but only discovering it in one radiant passage from the second section. This is beautiful music of great depth and subtle urgency.
Level 1 - I initially thought that Beausejour sounded quick, but it turned out to be a lack of involvement with the music's emotional themes; there's little urgency or negativity which results in the uplifting passage of the second section having little impact; ditto for Keith Jarrett and Vinikour. Alan Curtis surprised me with his very quick tempo and relatively care-free reading. Barenboim's reading isn't good enough to offset some first section notes which are hardly audible; this presents serious balance problems.
Level 2 - Dershavina and Vieru give intimately probing and slow accounts. Feltsman finally gets down to serious business with a very expansive interpretation. Perahia places high priority on momentum, but Koroliov, Ingolfsdottir, and Lifschitz want none of that; their very slow readings are ones to luxuriate in. A quicker performance which is also luxuriating is from Hantai. I'd be hard pressed to find more lovely readings that those from van Schie, Schiff, Schirmer, Serkin, and Tipo.
Other excellent versions are from Cole, Koopman, Kipnis, Xiao Mei, Hewitt, Nikolayeva, Pinnock, Jaccottet, Verlet, Yudina, Valenti, Vartolo, Suzuki, Rosen, Leonhardt/Teldec, the stern Richter, and both Landowska issues.
Three of the Gould versions can't match Gould/CBC. Gould I is on the quick side, and Gould IV could be less relaxed; both omit the repeats.Gould II is significantly slower and does observe the repeats; it's a fine performance not having the urgency of Gould/CBC.
All the Turecks are excellent. Except for Tureck III, each one eschews any notion of destination and takes many side-roads. Although highly effective, they are a little on the relaxed side. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but when Tureck performed at Bill Buckley's home, she didn't cover the repeats to this variation - just an observation with no values attached.
Level 3 - Kenneth Gilbert uses a quick tempo to heighten the music's urgency; he takes just the opposite route of Curtis with outstanding results. The accenting, detail, and strong feelings round out a wonderful performance.
As mentioned above, I consider Gould/CBC the best of his four versions and a transcendent interpretation. His tempo and pacing are perfect, every hesitation enhances urgency and poignancy, and all nuances strike deep within me. Concerning sound quality, there are two early scratching sounds, but the engineering behaves itself very well otherwise.
Robert Hill's performance is highly distinctive with sharp/angular notes and hesitations which wins this listener over completely. The subtle nature of his urgency is compelling, and the bleakness is intense. This all makes the second section's optimistic passage of great impact.
Joseph Payne is similar to Hill in angularity but with a much stronger personality; subtlety is low. In this instance, I appreciate the powerful stance while Payne maintains a high degree of nuance. What I most love about this reading is the kaleidoscope of colors Payne conveys.
Leonhardt I is the 'inexorable' version, and this is when he's at his best. The very slow pulse is hypnotic; Leonhardt doesn't lead us to into darkness, he personifies darkness. His commanding presence can not be denied. By comparison, Leonhardt is a pussycat in his Teldec performance.
Using a swaying rhythm, Scott Ross provides the most consistenly urgent version of the group; I can't sit still when listening. This isn't one of the deepest versions around, but it has the most enticing flow.
Half-Time Report: I was thinking of giving a synopsis of each version, but that would take up the rest of the game. I'll save that for the end. In the meantime, the 'leader board' still shows Tureck/DG as the best recording; next on the piano version list is Gould/Salzburg. Nikolayeva and Schiff hold up the rear.
Among the versions on harpsichord, the leaders are Scott Ross and Leonhardt/Vanguard with Maggie Cole, Joseph Payne, and Igor Kipnis close on their heels. Vinikour is at the low spot for harpsichords.
I don't expect the current order to hold up too well, because the latter variations are more demanding and emotionally rich than the earlier ones. Take Beausejour for example; I know from previous listenings that he tends to have some troubles in the deeper variations, so his stock will likely go down.
Any surprises so far? Yes. I'm finding the four versions from Gould to be more distinctive among one other than the four Tureck performances. Right at this moment, I don't think it would kill me to part with the Turecks except for Tureck/DG. But each of the Gould versions has unique qualities I would not be without.
Leonhardt/Vanguard gets some bad press, but I am very taken with the recording. The sound doesn't bother me; I actually can find some attractive elements. The performances possess great stature and pulse, and when Leonhardt puts on his 'inevitable' face, no one is better.
I initally fthat the sound on Landowska/EMI wasn't bad at all for the time period, and that may still hold. However, its recessed nature is a negative which is impacting my enjoyment.
Cole, Payne, and Jaccottet are doing great work. Cole's reputation is not as fine as her artistry, I've never Payne perform so well, and Jaccottet is a wonderful surprise.
Barenboim started quite well but is starting to languish. Perahia still doesn't sound like the greatest current Bach performer on piano, but I have hopes that Feltsman will dump his highest register approach and provide some stunning interpretations later in the work.
The most strking observation I have is how good all these recordings are. The least rewarding of them is still mighty fine. I know that I make various remarks which might sound quite negative, but that's mainly for entertainment purposes. So, if one of your favorite versions doesn't end up getting a high rating, please don't take that as an indication that I don't like the recording. With so many great versions of the Goldbergs on the market, there's a few out there for every kind of taste.
Feedback to the above Review
Bradley Lehman wrote (August 30, 2001):
< Donald Satz wrote: (Variation 15) All the Turecks are excellent. Except for Tureck III, each one eschews any notion of destination and takes many side-roads. Although highly effective, they are a little on the relaxed side. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but when Tureck performed at Bill Buckley's home, she didn't cover the repeats to this variation - just an observation with no values attached. >
Small correction as another observation with no values attached: the booklet for that Tureck performance at Buckley's house (I have this CD as TROY 007 from Albany) says she indeed played all the repeats, but they edited out some of them to fit the time constraints of CD and LP publication; the cassette edition of this performance allegedly has all the repeats.
Further interesting point about that one: the producer for the CD issue was Andrew Kazdin, who was Glenn Gould's producer for a big chunk of Gould's career...but not for any of Gould's Goldbergs. I think it's fitting that he could do this production for Gould's personal Bach heroine, Tureck.
Another observation: you're still referring to Zhu as "Xiao Mei" even though that is her given name and Zhu is her family name. Is there anything we should know about, Don, re your being on such an intimate basis with her but not with Peter or Jory or Rosalyn or Gustav or Blandine? :)
Donald Satz wrote (August 30, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] The Mandala liner notes do refer to her as Xiao Mei; she may call me Don.
Denis Fodor wrote (September 7, 2001)
< Donald Satz writes: Although no further recordings of the Goldbergs have fallen from the sky, I did buy a new reissue featuring Igor Kipnis... >
...and goes on from there with his astoundingly industrious –and valuable-- tour of classical recordings. I've bought some of Don's past recommendations--notably Tureck's stuff -- and my satisfaction with his guidance is at the same time suffused with regret that there's simply not the time to listen to everything else that he's commented on.
Another rub is that there seems to me lacking in Don's sense of things a feel for the few great pianists who were perhaps not among the most adept technicians but who could play arch-classical German music without a foreign accent. And you most decidedly didn't have to be German to bring that off. Among the artists I have in mind are, foremost, Serkin,Schnabel, maybe Rubinstein, and in the latter day, Brendel. These were/are players who in our time continued in the tradition of play that the taste of the Bildungsbuerger dictated --starting approximately with the entry upon the aesthetic scene, in say Beethoven's time, of the highly educated bourgeois and his displacement of the aristocrat as the arbiter of taste in music. What came to be sought was a high-quality reading, rather than just high-quality technique. Among performers in my time I guess Landowska might also fit into this taste mold, along with Barenboim--but I don't feel that Tureck does, or Scott Ross, and certainly not Gould, or Pogorelich. They're excellent, no doubt about that. But they have that accent.
Donald Satz wrote (September 7, 2001):
< Denis Fodor writes: Another rub is that there seems to me lacking in Don's sense of things a feel for the few great pianists who were perhaps not among the most adept technicians but who could play arch-classical German music without a foreign accent. And you most decidedly didn't have to be German to bring that off. Among the artists I have in mind are, foremost, Serkin, Schnabel, maybe Rubinstein, and in the latter day, Brendel. >
I'm not really sure what Denis is trying to convey here. I have never reviewed any Bach recordings of the artists mentioned above by Denis, so I don't know how Denis ends up feeling that I don't appreciate them. The reason for no reviews is fairly simple; where are their recordings devoted to solo Bach works? I've never seen one from Schnabel, Serkin, or Rubinstein. Brendel has one or two he recorded, but they haven't shown up on my radar. Concerning Brendel, I think the world of his Beethoven and Mozart recordings, but he has recorded little of Bach that's available.
I may be wrong about this, but I don't feel that I place too high a priority on technical excellence. If I did, I would singing the praises of Perahia and Bernard Roberts in Bach, not Rosalyn Tureck. I also feel a very intimate connection with Austrian/Germanic classical music.
Denis, could you please elaborate so that I get a clear picture of your meaning?
Denis Fodor wrote (September 11, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] Don's right about the lack of recordings of Bach by the pianists who I think personify the highest degree of fidelity to the perfomance tradition of German classical music. But my posting sought to make clear that I was commenting in general terms and not in specific relation to Don's coverage (which I think is very valuable, for what it seeks to address).
Thing is, Bach was a preceptor of German classical music. At the heart of the performance of his music, and even more in that which then followed it, there lay an intellectual approach which is very special. There is a certain Innerlichkeit (an internalizing) that applies to this sort of performance, much as such an Innerlichkeit pervades and distiguishes German literature, philosophy, religion, and culture in general in this "classical" period.
My contention was that players such as Schnabel, Serkin and more lately Brendel and Barenboim (?) were inculcated with this tradition and brought it to their playing, whereas other players, highly gifted in other respects, did not. This latter group figured largely in Don's coverage, and thus gave occasion to my posting.
A part of what I consider the "true" German tradition is the relative lack of stress on outstanding technique; rather, what is desired is outstanding spirituality. If you can understand that without craving greater precision then you're beginning to approach the kind of spirituality I'm talking about. The whole thing is somewhat ineffable, probably because it concerns acculturation rather than rationalization. (I'm also talking here and in my previous posting of perfomance in general, not recordings specifically. As you may have gathered from previous postings of mine, I consider live performances far more gripping and meaningful than recordings.Incidentally, I never heard either Schnabel or Serkin play Bach, though I'd be surprised if in the course of their long careers they had not done so.)
Continue on Part 6