Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Round-Up of Goldberg Variations Recordings, Part 6
Continue from Part 5
Donald Satz wrote (September 13, 2001):
16th Variation - An heroic French Overture having an improvisatory and heroic dotted-rhythm first section and exciting second section fugue.
Level I - These versions are rewarding but either are not highly distinctive or possess some major blot. Barenboim is great in the first section but very weak in the fugue. Schiff's fugue is too cute in addition to being weak; Serkin is too soft throughout. Hantai is rather jittery in the first section, and Vieru is on the choppy side throughout. Tureck IV displays much vitality in the first section, but it seems to come via Liszt. Whatever excitement Xiao Mei provides comes from her first section; the fugue sounds a little helter-skelter.
Lifschitz's tempo for the first section is the slowest I've ever heard; ultimately, the interest wans some in the first repeat. van Schie begins with no bite at all, although it picks up in the first repeat. Hill's problem consists of too many trills which last too long and are too pronounced. The versions which I don't find highly distinctive are Yudina, Dershavina, Jaccottet, Koopman, Rosen, Nikolayeva, Kipnis, and both Leonhardts.
Level II - Tipo, Hewitt, Ingolfsdottir, Perahia, and Vartolo deliver outstanding dotted-rhythm sections; the first four are the epitome of heroism, and Vartolo uses his hesitations and slow tempo to convey a thought-provoking performance. Karl Richter's reading is distinctive because of the pronouned change in texture from the first section to the fugue. His heavy dotted rhythms contrast so boldly with the pristine fugue he creates.
Schirmer's distinction is a driving yet soft-spoken fugue. Feltsman would be at the top level except for another highest register treatment. Ross conveys more joy in the first section than any other artist, but his fugue is a little lacking in momentum. Other excellent versions include Vinikour, and Tureck I/II/III.
Among the Gould issues, I and IV are the faster performances, and I find that a slight detriment in their fugues. Gould/CBC is very similar to Gould II, but the sound is less advantageous.
Level III - These are the performances outstanding in both sections: Beausejour, Koroliov, Cole, Pinnock, Payne, Jarrett, Valenti, Curtis, Gould II, Verlet, Gilbert, Suzuki, and both Landowska versions. Except for Jarrett, each is supremely heroic in the first section and strong/thrilling in the fugue. Jarrett's first section is perfectly proportioned, and his fugue carries much noble stature.
Update on Joseph Payne - Payne consistently gives strong and angular performances fully providing the emotional depth and breadth of each variation. Presently, only Tureck/DG is greater in my affection. The sole potential reservation that I can see on the horizon with Payne is that when listened to at one sitting, the constantly strong projection could be too much of a good thing; that remains to be determined.
17th Variation - Highly playful music with an 'eerie' edge. The piece sounds so precise yet at the same time seeming to intend to break apart as the 'runs' contrast with voices taking side roads. It's like being drawn and quartered. I find this variation one of Bach's most interesting, and it allows the performer great latitude in performance style. 'Fast' is the tempo used by many versions, and the music tends to respond naturally to it. The potential for an exciting and interesting ride is tremendous. Some versions take a slower trip with varying results; these slow versions are in the 2 1/2 minute range or more.
Level 1 - Van Schie is one who uses a slower tempo; there's no excitement, his staccato runs are not sharp and don't generate interest, and he's too heavily into legato at other times. I get little sense of contrast. Yudina is fast and doesn't handle the tempo with command; she also gets into some key-banging which is jarring to the ears. Richter just sounds ordinary and straight-forward without much forward momentum; the two Leonhardt versions are much in the Richter mold. Both Landowska versions have plenty of momentum, but the descending runs aren't mememorable.
Tureck/Phillips and her performance at Buckley's home are not very good. She is quite fast in both readings, and it just doesn't suit her talents. Curtis happened to be in the listening group also having Jaccottet and Vinikour; Curtis pales in comparison. Vinikour speeds his way thrillingly, and Jaccottet provides great joy and lift. In comparison, Curtis is entirely earth-bound and not so happy; his runs are particularly
Barenboim deserves his very own paragraph; this is the least appealing version of the variation I have heard. With extreme volume changes and key-banging in the second section like he's lost his mind, what I most dislike is that Barenboim makes this music one big joke; I'm not talking moderate humor, but the 'split a gut' variety. Personally, I didn't even crack a grin - wincing was my mode.
'Vitality' will be the theme of this paragraph. Maria Tipo takes things further than Feltsman; she immediately goes to the highest register and stays there. This saps much of the music's vitality. Jarrett isn't vital either; he seems to be restraining himself. Dershavina possesses vitality to the hilt one moment, then becomes excessively soft-spoken the next. There's no problem with Lifschitz's vitality since he took one too many vitamins; his reading has some overbearing strength to it.
Level 2 - These excellent versions have speed and excitement as their foundation along with very interesting descending runs: Xiao Mei, Koopman, Serkin, Ross, Pinnock, Rosen, Verlet, Koroliov, Perahia, Ingolfsdottir, Payne, Hantai, Valenti, Gilbert, Jaccottet, Nikolayeva, Schiff, Vinikour, Vieru, Kipnis, Hill, and Beausejour.
Slow and excellent performances tend to magnify the details in the music and present greater horizontal expressiveness than the faster versions. This group includes Suzuki, Hewitt, Cole, Vartolo, Feltsman, Tureck/DG, Tureck IV, and Schirmer; it strikes me that Schirmer's and particularly Hewitt's interpretations are so similar to Tureck/DG. Suzuki gives a very comforting reading which is quite different from the others.
The four Gould versions are each lightning fast and I sit here just marveling at his technique; any one of the versions should delight those who love this piece at the fastest tempo humanly possible.
Level 3 - Empty. There are many wonderful versions, but I don't find any of them magical.
18th Variation - This piece easily adapts to a variety of performance approaches. It works well as playful, ceremonial, heroic, hushed, or dramatic music. The better versions, and that's most of them, convey a combination of these qualities. Some, such as from Nikolayeva and Schiff, add even greater breadth of expression. Only five versions don't quite make the grade:
Maria Tipo is rather hushed and dream-like throughout; diversity is minimal, and I feel that I'm getting only one-half of Bach.
Ingolfsdottir tends to chop up the music to the degree that I'm just hearing a series of motifs.
Feltsman continues his highest register routine like a bear takes to honey. It sounds so precious and willful and irritating.
Vinikour's reading isn't irritable, just routine and uninvolved. This is a trait that strikes the man quite often.
Yudina and the engineering give us a fierce bass line that's overactive. At times, her performance sounds like a caricature.
Level 2 - Except for one version, this is where everyone else resides.
Level 3 - This one surprises me since it's Nikolayeva. Up to now, her performances have not been distinctive, but she shines through in the 18th Variation with the most diverse and pleasureable reading of them all. She begins in a staccato-driven mood which is very effective; at the start of the first repeat, she switches to a dream-like setting which is gorgeous, tender, and hushed. Subsequently, Nikolayeva alternates moods, st, and tempos. She goes all out to maximize variety, and I think she succeeds at every turn. Basically, for every other version there are at least a few which are quite similar. Only Nikolayeva stands out for distinction as well as for a very rewarding and interesting interpretation.
19th Variation - Joyful, poignant, and satisfying music with strong accenting; the second section adds a little drama.
Level 1 - Most of the reviewed versions are excellent or better, so there isn't much at level 1. Inglolfsdottir is here though with another rather choppy performance a little deficient in conveying anything but joy. Two other residents are Vinikour and Lifschitz who sound like they just want to quickly get through the piece with as little intimacy as possible. Schiff goes to the higher register with results no better than Feltsman's usual.
Level 2 - The Tureck versions are slow-paced except for her performance at Buckley's home; the faster tempo reduces the poignancy of the reading. Jarrett's performance is very comfortable, smooth, and enjoyable; Cole is similar except for a moderate staccato. Serkin punches out the music in an attractive fashion. Schirmer and Dershavina give very slow performances; they tend to be a little melancholy, but the music can absorb the approach.
van Schie, Ross, Feltsman, Yudina, and Rosen are very fast with a significant excitement. Tipo is rich in legato and perhaps a little subdued with accenting. Landowska/RCA is just a little less vibrant than her outstanding performance on EMI.
Other issues at this level include Vieru, Vartolo, Payne, Koopman, Barenboim, Richter, Jaccottet, Beausejour, Verlet, Gould/CBC, Xiao Mei, and Pinnock.
Level 3- There are quite a few versions which are wonderful listening experiences. Gould II and IV are fairly slow and mesmorizing. Suzuki, Kipnis, Hantai, Curtis, and Gilbert provide pristine performances with fantastic phrasing; Hewitt's and Perahia's rhythm is a great blend of flowing legato and outstanding accenting. The remaining Tureck versions are slow, incisive, investigatory, and staccato driven.
Koroliov, Nikolayeva, Leonhardt I, and Valenti are even slower than the Tureck versions, and it works beautifully; they are gorgeous and tender readings. Leonhardt/Teldec is quicker than in his Vanguard effort and has more bounce to it. For a great performance combining joy and supreme comfort, Landowska/EMI is hard to beat. Hill is fast and pungent with an irresistable pulse.
Level 3 Plus - Quick like the Gould/CBC version, Gould I is more vibrant and poignant. My feeling is that it incorporates the best elements of the other three Gould performances: highly expressive, exciting, and with staccato to die for.
Update: Concerning the variations covered in Part 6, Hewitt, Hill, Gould I, Suzuki, Nikolayeva, and Koroliov have significantly moved up the chain. Ingolfsdottir keeps dropping toward the bottom and might just end up there; it's not that her performances are unenjoyable, but that as the complexity and depth of the music increases, she is not answering the call. This also applies to Vinikour and Lifschitz.
Tureck/DG remains at the top spot with a decent lead over Gould IV. Close behind are Ross, Cole, Payne, Gilbert, Leonhardt I, Gould I & II, and Kipnis.
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 on Piano: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Round-Up of Goldberg Variations Recordings: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Continue on Part 7