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The Goldberg Variations. Yes. Bach showed little interest in the variation form until being commissioned to write keyboard music for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, presumably to help his insomniac employer (Count Keyserlingk) fall asleep. Keyserlinkgk was so delighted with the variations he reportedly gave Bach a golden goblet filled with 100 Louis d’ors. Today, the Goldberg Variations are prized as the crowning achievement of Baroque keyboard music. The 30 variations begin with a two-part aria in G-major. After running through the variations (arranged as ten groupings of three variations), Bach repeats the aria, now transformed into something different yet familiar. A nice touch. Which brings up to this performance.
Comparisons between Adras Schiff’s account with that of Glenn Gould’s infamous account are inevitable. It was Gould who set the benchmark for piano with his 1955 recording. Gould's is a breathtaking performance, relatively short at 38.25, yet cleanly negotiated. Gould does not bother with the repeats, and the sound is a bit dry. Schiff’s account is nearly twice as long, at 62.22 minutes and the sound wonderfully atmospheric. His account is charming and beautiful where Gould is piquant and direct. Both are exquisitely poetic and stand as paeans to Bach's genius. I prefer Schiff’s expansive account with it's superior sonics but wouldn’t be without Gould's legendary performance.
The piano as we know it today did not exist for Bach. We do know he was aware of the recently invented pianoforte and there is evidence he owned an example built by Stein. Would he have endorsed playing the Goldberg variations on piano instead of the more readily available harpsichord? People have been posing this question ever since Tureck and Gould recorded them in the 1950's. These questions need not bother the modern music lover. There is no argument about the ability to vary dynamics on the modern piano so right there you have the answer. There is frankly more expression possible on piano than harpsichord or clavichord.
With that decided, who do you turn to for the best rendition on piano? I can't answer that definitively because the answer can't exist. People's tastes vary widely and when it comes to music, it is even harder to come to complete consensus. Do rest assured that with Andras Schiff, you are going to hear a recording by one of the best. Schiff specializes in Classical and Romantic period music. He has performed and successfully recorded Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann. He is not generally thought of as a Bach specialist like Angela Hewitt or the late Rosalyn Tureck or Glenn Gould. Yet he has recorded parts of complete versions of other Bach works including the English Suites and Two + Three Part Inventions as well as single Fantasies. His ability to play these works is aided by superb technique, excellent tempo choices, natural feel and dynamics. Music through his interpretation is alive, expressive and negotiated with smooth and supple fingerwork.
Bach's music is always challenging both for listener and artist. His studious contrapuntal approach creates mind bending and finger twisting problems for a player to solve and navigate. One must carefully foster several melodic lines simultaneously carefully marking their entrances and exists while still managing to have the wholeness of the piece make musical sense. To the listener, contrapuntal music can become kalideoscopic and dissolve into a waves of notes that meld together into kinesthetic sounds that are hard to sort out. Listeners sometimes avoid Bach because of these perceived difficulties. It is true that Bach's music can have an academic side. Luckily, the Goldberg variations are one of Bach's most approachable contrapuntal creations. It starts with a simple, gentle sounding song or "aria" and this is then put through over 30 different permutations. You can hear the original conception in every variation and Bach doesn't take them as far afield as Beethoven does with his theme in his Diabelli Variations. He does vary them in amazing ways though, and it is highly absorbing to experience the scientific and artful ways Bach resets such an apparently naive little tune. By the time it returns at the end, you have been taken on a wild and enthralling roller coaster ride through an encyclopedia of contrapuntal art. In the end, you only have to chew on as much as you feel like because overall the music is never foreign sounding or unwelcome, or far reaching as Bach's "Art of the Fugue" or even the solo "Cello Suites". The conception is generally wellcoming because after all, it was written to help a friend deal with his insomnia. This is accessible Bach played with artistry, taste and joy, therefore with an open ear and mind, can be thoroughly enjoyed by all music lovers. Highly Recommended.
A surprising performance of this magnificent piece of music. The more I listen to Schiff's Goldberg, the more it grows on me. He a number of unique flares, accents on certain notes and phrases, and adds a wonderful color to this piece. I do not have many Schiff recordings of nay composer.
Variation 25 has always been a sore spot with me. I feel it was one of the few flaws in Bach's entire cannon of music (ironic that it's in one of the greatest pieces of music ever written). It is a very difficult movement to play well (much like Merlot, easy to grow and produce into wine, but VERY difficult to make well) and hold the audiences attention. Schiff explores that variation with an insight I don't think I've ever heard and brings the true beauty and interest out. Only Gould has done that for me so far. Even Perahia and Gavrilov, who's versions I enjoy better than Schiff's didn't quite get that movement right.
I highly recommend this recording to anyone who enjoys this marvelous work of art by the greatest composer that ever lived!
Schiff's first recording of the Goldberg's is perhaps one of the best recordings of ANYTHING ever made, ranking with, for instance, the Stern/Casals Schubert Quintet or the Klemperer Magic Flute. Schiff's phenomenal technique is always in the service of the music, both in its expression and its structure, underlying the fact that, as with all great music, there is no real separation of the two parameters. Looking at it all from a slightly different vantage point, so much of the Goldbergs is DANCE music, and Schiff never loses sight of this, even in some of the traditionally slower variations.
What is it about these Goldberg Variations that fascinate and entertain as much as any other work written......? I own several recordings/ interpretations of these pieces and each one is wonderful in its own way. I love Richter's Well Tempered Clavier recordings and eagerly waiting to hear his Goldberg Variations which I have just ordered. I guess Perahia's recordings are technically correct, but they just don't excite me; I really sit up and listen when Arrau plays them however. But this recording by Schiff is masterful; he plays the Variations as though he had composed them; he owns them!
I haven't heard Schiff's live 2001 Goldberg Variations on ECM, however, this traversal recorded for Decca nineteen years earlier is satisfying in its own way. Schiff takes what I would call a middle-of-the road approach to the music, which is to say that he is halfway between Kempff, who produces a beautiful reading but is a little too romantic, and Gould who is, well, Gould. His playing above all is "correct" without being pedantic, and among the piano versions I've heard most closely approximates the harpsichord. His transitions from one variation to the next flow nicely and because he doesn't overemphasize the individuality of any of the variations, the feeling I get after listening is that his conception is organically whole. This approach, however, has its drawbacks as the personality of certain variations is lost, a prime example of which is the eleventh, which Schiff completely downplays.
Schiff's Goldberg lacks some of the character and edge found, for example, in Feltsman's less orthodox live reading; and if you listen to Gavrilov, who has a tendency to hammer home a point and take off in bursts of speed, which can be undeniably exciting, the differences are also apparent. But neither Feltsman's nor Gavrilov's Goldberg are for purists.
I'm still looking for the perfect Goldberg Variations, which I know doesn't exist; and while Schiff's set is one of the better ones I've found so far, I would nevertheless direct listeners to Charles Rosen's classic account which has more backbone and variety (
Bach: Goldberg Variations BWV 988 / Charles Rosen
Three and a half stars, which I'm rounding up to four.