Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Bach's Goldberg Variations on Piano, Part 2
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Donald Satz wrote (May 7, 2000):
The fourth variation is exuberant music which is well suited to the fast pace of Gould I. Lifschitz is a little slower but fully captures the joy of the music. Tipo has an infectious beat with moderate pace. Both Turecks are slow paced but they have just the right bounce. The remaining versions are fine - just a little short of excellent.
On the surface, it would be reasonable to think of the fifth variation as music that needs to be performed fast and strong. Many of the versions do just that, and except for one, all of them sound very similar when played consecutively. These versions, fast or otherwise, are good but ultimately interchangegable. Tureck II is the exception. Her pacing, although relatively slow, has great forward momentum. Also, her chord progressions just strike me as perfect. Tureck makes the variation more than just a vehicle for exhilarating fun. She brings out every ounce of intricacy.
The sixth variation has great counterpoint and poetry, but both Goulds and Yudina play it for power and speed. Although I don't care for that choice, the Goulds do it well. Yudina has poor sound for the higher notes and also is unidiomatic. The remaining versions do well with the counterpoint and poetry, but Tipo and Hewitt are special. Tipo gives another dream-like reading and it takes me to other lands. Hewitt is commanding with the counterpoint and the conversations between the melodies are exquisite.
The seventh variation can easily sound like happy-go-lucky music. But four versions take it further than that by injecting some harmonic tension which heightens the impact on the listener: both Goulds, Hewitt, and Yudina who eschews her bad habits displayed in earlier variations. The remaining versions are good with that happy approach except for Tureck II; for some reason which I can't explain, she becomes fussy, throws in useless trills, varies volume frequently, and sounds like Schiff at his worst.
The eighth variation is generally played in a fast and powerful manner with a little poetry thrown in; speeds (assuming repeats) range from 1.5 to 2 minutes. Tureck I and Hewitt, in the 2 minute range, provide a great deal of poetry and superb pacing. The other versions are not quite as good with the exception of Tureck II. She spreads the variation out to about 2.5 minutes and transforms it into a four-course dinner. Her accents are incisive and delicious, the counterpoint is stunning, and I don't think a better interpretation is possible (until tomorrow). This variation is a good example of what happens when a very short piece is played super fast without repeats (Gould I) - it's over before you have a chance to adjust the audio controls.
Variation 9 is a bitter-sweet piece which Bach typically does so well. Two very slow paced versions, Tureck I and Tipo are my favorites. Tureck slows down the proceedings and inspects every note - sort of a quality control check. Tipo delivers a dreamy performance which I always get lost in. Leaving Yudina aside, the other versions are very good. Yudina's problem is a fierce sound which had me wincing on the higher notes. Her interpetation is fine, but that sound does get in the way.
The 10th variation is a rousing fugue with some humorous elements. I don't care for humor in music and that might factor into my opinion that this variation is below Bach's customary inspiration. But, most of the versions were enjoyable - Schiff, Schepkin, and Koroliov were not. Whenever it seems that Schiff finally has some momentum building, he slams on the brakes and fools around with trivial pursuits. Schepkin *adds* humor through a few trills (very annoying). Koroliov, when starting the first repeat, plays the bass line much too loudly; it was like getting a wake-up call when you're sound asleep. I saved both Turecks and Gould II for last, hoping that one of them would transcend the mundane, but it didn't happen.
Variation 11, a piece of joy and playfulness, had me nodding in approval on every version. It's a tough call, but I place Gould II, Serkin, and Schiff at the front. Gould has a great pace and fine clarity. Both Schiff and Serkin give beautiful readings. I haven't said much about Serkin so far. He tends to be in the middle of the pack with highly melodic and poetic readings. Rarely does he make any major mistakes of interpretation, and he just as rarely transcends the other versions. His lack of repeats has at times been a deficiency when a sense of continuity has been lost or just the fact that some great music isn't there. Leaving aside the repeats, he's giving us "safe" performances - sure to please and not offend anyone.
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