Bradley Lehman wrote (July 21, 2001):
For contrast with my enthusiastic review of Zhu's Goldbergs on piano this week, here's one on harpsichord that I couldn't stand. I hated this bit of digital charlatanry so much I had to sell the disc and get it out of my house. (It was either sell it to recoup the price of a sandwich, or put the CD into the microwave for three seconds and get it over with, nobly ridding the world of one more copy of it.)
First, my Amazon review from April 2000: Amazon.com
Bach's Goldberg Variations: Anthony Newman, harpsichord - Infinity Digital
In overall interpretive approach, it sounds as if Newman doesn't trust either Bach's creativity or the harpsichord's sound to offer inherent beauty or interest. Instead, Newman's clever mind and twitchy fingers have to "make something happen" all the time, whether it's through aggressive ornamentation or simply rushing the music. Newman sounds particularly impatient in variations 25 and 15. Throughout this disc the listener isn't allowed much repose, or much sense of Bach's architecture underlying the piece. Everything is foreground. Listening to this is like watching a film that is only a car chase. Sure, it raises the adrenaline, but....
This disc is perhaps worth hearing once or twice out of curiosity, but the playing is too consistently high-strung (like an overdose of caffeine) and monochromatic to reward repeated listening. Two stars (instead of only one) for being at least entertaining in that regard.
Furthermore, this disc is plagued by bad edits; clearly this "performance" is pieced together from small bits of different sessions (1985/86). Some of the beats are missing from variation 16, and there are occasions where the room acoustics change abruptly from phrase to phrase. The phrases themselves often don't seem to breathe naturally. Tempo changes within variations are arbitrary and extreme, and there are tiny pauses within the fastest passagework. All this suggests that a lot of patchwork took place to assemble the notes accurately end to end. Why not just *play the music* for the most natural sounding results? (Naturally we assume Newman really can play this piece, else he wouldn't be recording it.... So, why not use at least whole takes of the individual variations for better continuity?)
If you are here looking for a good ultra-low-budget CD of this piece on harpsichord, skip this and get the beautifully phrased performance by the late Christiane Jaccottet. Or if you generally like the "hot plate touch" that is Newman's basic sound, but also want more poise and grace along with it, try Hantai or van Asperen.
Further comments today:
In Newman's defense, his earlier recording of the Goldbergs on a Columbia LP (M 30538) is much better. Much, MUCH better. It's similarly hot and twitchy in interpretation, fast and aggressive, but at least it has more continuity and better production. It sounds as if he's actually playing the piece as opposed to patching groups of notes together. It's an extraverted romp through the music, and worth hearing.
Discs such as that Infinity remake really "yank my chain." The other four customer reviewers at Amazon all gave it five stars out of five, while I gave it two (barely, as noted). If in today's recording industry it's enough to patch all the notes and variations together mechanically as an end in itself, and if that gets the highest possible rating, where does it leave any room for real artistry with the music? Why bother?
I mean, even I would give Newman's own Columbia LP four stars out of five, recognizing that it's above average, and I'm not especially a Newman fan. Does "average" mean anything to anyone else anymore? Or does a halfway competent digital assemblage just automatically mean "wet your pants, this music will never be played better than this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" ? Where's the music?
I have quite a few of Newman's other Columbia LPs of various things, from back when he was still an emerging artist, and they are all pretty good. In those early days on harpsichord and organ he's always fluent, brilliant, and exciting, if a little monochromatic in interpretation (all pieces pressed into that same mold). It's usually worth hearing what he comes up with even if I don't like it; it'll be stimulating. He has interesting thoughts about the music. His recordings from the past 20 years, though, generally sound more manufactured/assembled than performed...a distressing trend that I've noticed since the beginning of the CD age. The spirit of involvement seems drained out of them, replaced by an evident goal of just hitting all the notes within some intellectual concept of the piece. Has the ability to do digital editing spoiled Newman's musicianship, or does it just sound that way to me alone? (He does sound better on fortepiano than on harpsichord or organ.)
Is there anyone else here who's heard any of Newman's recordings of the Goldbergs, or any of his other Bach on harpsichord or organ? What did you think of them? He did most of the organ works on Newport and I heard some of those years ago, but I don't have them. It's much easier to find the CD set 5013 of his VoxBox from c1976, "24 Preludes and Fugues vol 1".
Should I bother reviewing Newman's disc of the Bach concertos BWV 1052, 1056, 1060, 1061 here given that it's been out of print for over ten years? Or is it more important to talk about recordings that are available?