Donald Satz wrote (March 18, 2004):
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Pierre Hantaï, harpsichord
Recorded at Doopgezindekerk de Haarlem (Pays-Bas), 2003
Released February 2004
Mirare 9945 [78:40]
Comparison Version: Hantaï/Opus 111 - Naive
A short time ago, I reviewed the new András Schiff recording of the Goldberg Variations that was made about twenty years after his first version on Decca. Now, Pierre Hantaï gives us his second interpretation of the work after only a ten year hiatus since his first recording for Opus 111 that has been reissued at mid-price on the Naive label. Has Hantaï revised his thoughts on performance style, or is he simply a man who loves to play and record the Goldbergs? Although I recently read a review indicating that the two versions are very similar, I find that Hantaï has significantly revised his thoughts on performance style.
In his 1992 performance, Hantaï's exuberance, high energy, fluidity, and steady drive win the day. In 2002, the exuberance is less prevalent with a bitter/sweet undercurrent now standard in the Aria and many of the variations. Tempos are little slower in the newer version as Hantaï explores particular phrases and musical lines, also judiciously using slight hesitations and rhythmic variations; also important are the much sharper contours in the new version. Perhaps most significant is that the new version is darker in personality and offers more levels of contrast both as a coherent whole and within each variation.
All of the above doesn't necessarily add up to considering the 2002 version better or worse than the 1992 release. They are just different in conception and equally compelling. I would hate to be without the unbridled joy and lift of the earlier interpretation, and the newer one is treasured for its greater breadth of emotional content and stronger rhythmic stretching achieved through incisive accenting and inflections. The one constant in both versions is complete service to the composer and a consistency of excellence rarely found in other recordings of the work.
Here are a few highlights of my travels with the two Hantaï versions:
Aria - Significant differences surface immediately in the opening Aria. Whereas Hantaï's earlier version lasts slightly over 4 minutes, the newer performance takes almost 5 minutes. Hantaï '92' is very comforting and optimistic; Hantaï '2002' is bitter-sweet to the core.
Variations 3 thru 8 - Hantaï is positively radiant and bubbling with enthusiasm in his earlier recording, while his recent version tempers the bubbling effect with other emotional themes of less joyous magnitude. Both approaches are perfectly executed.
Variation 9 - The earlier Hantaï is joyous and uplifting; the newer one is slower with hesitations that convey a personality of nagging doubts, a darker and richer interpretation.
Variations 13 & 15 - The newer Hantaï has the clear advantage here. An improvisatory presentation makes the dialogue more spontaneous and realistic, particuarly in Variation 13. Concerning Variation 15, Hantaï now offers layers of dark emotional content that contrast more effectively with the one radiant passage in the second section than in the earlier version.
Variation 16 - This is the Overture with its heroic double-dotted rhythm followed by an invigorating fugue. I have to make special mention of Hantaï's performance on the new release. The heroism he conveys is drenched in sharply pungent phrasing, and his fugue is a whirlwind of powerful and detailed activity. This is one of the best versions on record, and I know of no sharper recorded interpretation.
Variation 28 - I mention this variation as an example of Hantaï's fantastic virtuosity, precision, and expressiveness in both versions. The finger work and articulation are simply amazing.
Don's Conclusions: The new Hantaï release of the Goldberg Variations is among the best harpsichord versions on the market. The increased maturity of his interpretation over the 1992 recording is apparent in the richer emotional palette, improvisatory presentation, and variety of tempos. This is a 'must buy' disc for anyone not allergic to the harpsichord.
I also continue to strongly recommend the 1992 performance that is quite similar to the outstanding new András Schiff piano version on ECM in terms of conveying the joy and vitality of Bach's inspirational music. In addition to the two Hantaï versions being different in conception, the respective harpsichords used are also dissimilar. In the 1992 performance, Hantaï's choice of instrument is a very warm Dutch Bruce Kennedy model; the new release has Hantaï playing a Jonte Knif German model that is much sharper and detailed than the Dutch model. One hears some of the Knif mechanical action, but the effect is not distracting.
Although the instruments and the interpretations are distinctive from one another, both Hantaï recordings are wonderful. Assuming monetary considerations are not bleak, get both discs and revel in one of the greatest keyboard works in history.