Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Round-Up of Goldberg Variations Recordings
Donald Satz wrote (July 6, 2001):
I reviewed twelve recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations a little over a year ago. Since that time, I've reviewed eighteen additional versions, and I now have twelve more your consideration. Feeling at this point that the reviews have become rather fragmented, I have decided to do a round-up of forty versions. My assumption is that some of my previous conclusions will change significantly; that's only natural. Will the previous reviews be superfluous? That's not for me to decide, but this new one will take precedence in my mind.
To keep administrative matters relatively easy, I'll be rating each variation and the aria according to the following system which I'm tending to use more and more when I have a large number of recordings at hand:
Level 1 - Anything less than excellent.
Level 2 - Excellent to outstanding. These are performances which are memorable and deserve much future playing time.
Level 3 - A magical performance which makes the listening experience
There are two recordings which I previously reviewed that will not be included now - Labadie on Dorian and Schepkin on Ongaku. Labadie's chamber group provides two styles of performance: 'Bach goes Hollywood' and a consort style. I don't have any problems with the consort style, but the other type which is the more prevalent is one I consider a bad joke with Labadie at the command station. My overall opinion of Schepkin's Bach recordings is quite favorable, but the Goldbergs find him indulgent and willful; his trills particularly drive me up the wall although he has plenty of other bad tendencies one can't avoid. This is not the same Schepkin whose discs of the Partitas for Harpsichord and Well Tempered Clavier are very rewarding.
The specifics on the forty versions I am reviewing are:
 Luc Beausejour (Hp.) - Analekta Fleurs de Lys 23132 - 1997 - TT 75:50.
 Maggie Cole (Hp.) - Virgin Veritas 61555 - 1991 - TT 78:33.
 Ekaterina Dershavina (Pf.) - Arte Nova 34011 - 1994 - TT 77:13.
 Vladimir Feltsman (Pf.) - MusicMasters 67093 - 1991 - TT 79:32.
 Kenneth Gilbert (Hp.) - Harmonia Mundi 1901240 - 1986 - TT 66:46.
 Glenn Gould I (Pf.) - Sony 52594 - 1955 - TT 38:40.
 Glenn Gould II (Pf.) - Sony 37779 - 1982 - TT 51:14.
 Glenn Gould III (Pf.) -CBC 2007 - 1954 - TT 42:30.
 Pierre Hantai (Hp.) - Opus 111 3084 - 1992 - TT 77:26.
 Angela Hewitt (Pf.) - Hyperion 67305 - 1999 - TT 78:32.
 Robert Hill (Hp.) - Music & Arts 850 - 1993 - TT 75:07.
 Helga Ingolfsdottir (Hp.) - AC Classics 99074 - 1999 - TT 77:14.
 Keith Jarrett (Pf.) - ECM 1395 - 1989 - TT 61:39.
 Ton Koopman (Hp.) - Erato 16170 - 1987 - TT 62:22.
 Evgeni Koroliov (Pf.) - Hanssler 92112 - 1999 - TT 84:52.
 Wanda Landowska I (Hp.) - EMI 67200 - 1933 - TT 46:45.
 Wanda Landowska II (Hp.) - RCA 60919 - 1945 - TT 49:08.
 Gustav Leonhardt I (Hp.) - Vanguard/Bach Guild 2004 - 1953 - TT 54:19.
 Gustav Leonhardt II (Hp.) - Teldec 97994 - 1965 - TT 47:41.
 Konstantin Lifschitz (Pf.) - Denon 78961 - 1994 - TT 79:01.
 Tatiana Nikolayeva (Pf.) - Hyperion 66589 - 1992 - TT 79:38.
 Murray Perahia (Pf.) - Sony 89243 - 2000 - TT 73:28.
 Trevor Pinnock (Hp.) - Archiv 415130 - 1980 - TT 60:45.
 Karl Richter (Hp.) - Teldec 97904 - 1958 - TT 44:40.
 Charles Rosen (Pf.) - Sony 48173 - 1967 - TT 75:50.
 Scott Ross (Hp.) - Virgin Veritas 61869 - 1988 - TT 75:44.
 Andras Schiff (Pf.) - Decca/Penguin 460611 - 1982 - TT 72:20.
 Ragna Schirmer (Pf.) - Berlin Classics 0017162 - 1999 - TT 87:10.
 Peter Serkin (Pf.) - RCA 68188 - 1994 - TT 44:30.
 Masaaki Suzuki (Hp.) - BIS 819 - 1997 - TT 73:17.
 Maria Tipo (Pf.) - EMI 47546 - 1986 - TT 63:42.
 Rosalyn Tureck I (Pf.) - Philips 456979 - 1957 - TT 93:40.
 Rosalyn Tureck II (Pf.) - DG 459599 - 1998 - TT 91:10.
 Rosalyn Tureck III (Pf.) - VAI Audio 1029 - 1988 - TT 74:46.
 Rosalyn Tureck IV (Pf.) - VAI Audio 1131 - 1995 - TT 92:38.
 Blandine Verlet (Hp.) - Astree 128745 - 1992 - TT 80:30.
 Andrei Vieru (Pf.) - Harmonia Mundi 901666 - 1998 - TT 48:50.
 Jory Vinikour (Hp.) - Delos 3279 - 2000 - TT 85:39.
 Zhu Xiao Mei (Pf.) - Mandala 4950 - 1999 - TT 61:20.
 Maria Yudina (Pf.) - Philips 456994 - 1968 - TT 70:55.
I have a few points to make before starting out with the opening aria:
a. I won't be mentioning the observing or skipping of repeats with every movement/variation. There are a few variations where I much prefer the observing of repeats, and I will cover them as the review progresses. As a rule of thumb, when 'total timings' go under 70 minutes, you can assume that not all repeats are observed. Performances under 50 minutes can be assumed to skip most, if not all, repeats.
b. The Glenn Gould recording from CBC was made just one year prior to the first Gould/Sony recording. Yet, some sources tend to dismiss the CBC effort as superfluous as best. I am not of that opinion in that the CBC performances sound very good to my ears. What isn't so good is the recorded sound which breaks now and then; it's nothing ususally terrible, but both Sony recordings have better sound. I refer to the CBC recording as Gould III simply because I used Gould I and II for the Sony releases in my earlier reviews.
c. Concerning the two Tureck/VAI recordings, Tureck III was performed at the home of William F. Buckley, while Tureck IV was recorded in St. Petersburg, Russia.
d. The forty recordings for review and the omitted Labadie and Schepkin issues do not by any means constitute the totality of Goldberg Variations recordings. There are a few other recordings which I would have liked to offer for review, but they were not high priority in my mind for acqusition.
The one recording I very much regret not having is a new one from Celine Frisch on a French label which is, to my knowledge, not available in the United States. So I'll get hold of it at a later date for a singular review; I have found Ms. Frisch to be exceptional in her Bach recital disc for Harmonia Mundi and her harpsichord role in the Viola da gamba Sonatas on the same label.
Opening Aria - This is fantastic music to begin the work: so tender, poignant, and comforting. Yet, there is also an underlying tension and melancholy which blends beautifully into the music's fabric. A great performance has to convey these contrasting elements. With the aria, I want the repeats observed, particularly that of the first theme. Without the first theme repeat, I always feel a little cheated when the second theme begins.
Level 1 - Most of the versions at this level do well with conveying tenderness and optimism but come up a little short on sadness and tension; the result is less than excellent contrast. Hantai, Jarrett, Ingolfsdottir, Beausejour, Koopman, Koroliov, Lifschitz, Nikolayeva, both Landowska issues, and both Leonhardt recordings fall into this category. Vinikour has the opposite problem; his reading exudes little optimism or tenderness.
Gould I is a little too quick for my tastes, and Gould III suffers from some fierce sound. Schirmer's version is lovely, but her very slow pace involves some loss of momentum. Feltsman's first theme repeat is a mess as he immediately goes to a much higher register with a jarring and glassy sound. Projection which I find too soft hinders the readings from Hewitt, Perahia, Tipo, and Schiff. Verlet is too fast and delivers an angular reading which borders on being choppy. Xiao Mei's undercurrent of tension is slight, and Yudina's left hand displays little incisiveness or projection- it's a weak second cousin to her lively right hand.
Level 2 - Gilbert, Dershavina, Richter, Pinnock, Rosen, Serkin, Suzuki, Vieru, Gould II, Hill, Ross, and Tureck I are great performances. In each one, tenderness and comfort are blended beautifully with undercurrents of tension and sadness. Concerning Dershavina, I wasn't very impressed with her aria when I first reviewed her recording, but it's sounding better all the time. She has the requisite emotional elements in superb position. For a gorgeous version of the aria, Peter Serkin can't be beat and his piano sound is really exceptional. The only major difference that Tureck
I has with the more recent Tureck versions is that it's about a minute slower. Although a commanding performance, the extremely slow tempo is not as fetching as the other three.
Level 3 - Rosalyn Tureck dominates with her DG version and both VAI performances. They are so similar to one another that the recorded sound is the easiest way to tell them apart. The DG sound is excellent for the studio, the one in Buckley's home (Tureck III) has a bass strength that's a little too much, and the St. Petersburg sound is crisp and airy. I might slightly prefer the St. Petersburg version, but each of the three is magical. The tempos(very similar)always sound perfect as if Bach wrote the music for Tureck. Her accenting, rhythmic flow, trills, superb interplay, and the complete command of the aria are on full display in each version. These are relatively serious interpretations, but there is no sacrifice of comfort and tenderness. Tureck has a multi-layered story to tell, and it's an enlightening experience being on the listening end.
Maggie Cole is the other artist who is transcencent in the Aria. Much of what I said about the three Tureck versions applies to Cole's performance as well. I would just add that Cole's right hand provides some weeping notes which are very effective, and that her harpsichord sounds exceptional with both high and low ends simply gorgeous. This is an instrument to luxuriate in.
1st Variation - Most performances are fast, exciting, and exuberant. They're fine for what they are, but this music has even more to offer; a great version discovers some of those additional elements. I'm particularly fond of the cascading series of notes toward the end of the first theme.
Level 1 - The 'fast-exciting-not much more' category includes Hewitt, Rosen, Xiao Mei, Ingolfsdottir, Koopman, and Suzuki. Gould I is the extreme in this category with a lightning fast performance. Nikolayeva indulges in some extreme volumes, and Tipo disrupts the music's flow. Schiff comes up with a bunch of pesty trills and also manages to reduce the fluidity of the reading even though he's strongly legato. Feltsman, at the beginning of both repeats, goes overboard with the strength and emoting from the bass line. Tureck IV, unlike her earlier efforts, is quite forceful and gives the music an angry element which I don't appreciate: St. Petersburg didn't get her best on that evening.
Vinikour and Dershavina have distinctive and bubbly first themes but sound ordinary in their second themes. Cole, Gould III, Verlet, Serkin, Hantai, Schirmer, Jarrett, and Hill give fine versions lacking the nuances of the best performances. Lifschitz is very rewarding except he does little with the cascading notes in the first theme - poor projection and insufficient nuance. Perahia, as with the Aria, has his moments of soft projection when I least want them. Yudina breezes along very well until she speeds up with the beginning of the first theme repeat; it's amusing but not very musical.
Level 2: Performances at this high quality possess greater emotional intensity and breadth than those at the lower level. They also tend to be more detailed and revealing of the music's architecture. The versions at this level come from Landowska/EMI, Koroliov, Richter, Pinnock, Ross, Vieru, Gilbert, Beausejour, Leonhardt I, Gould II, and Tureck III. Landowska's performance is wonderful but suffers in comparison to her RCA effort due to recessed sound. Leonhardt's Vanguard effort is an x-ray examination of the music, but his Teldec performance is quite similar and in more up-to-date sound. Tureck performs excellently at Buckley's home, but her tempo is quick and not as effective as in her Philips and DG issues.
Level 3 - Leonhardt/Teldec, Tureck I & 2, and Landowska(RCA). As I indicated earlier, Leonhardt is supreme in conveying the architecture without any loss of poetry. Both Tureck versions are into examination with an infectious rhythm. In both themes, Landowska begins in a delicate and stark manner; then she envelops the soundstage with a much fuller use of her instrument. I find the contrast wonderful and illuminating. One aspect common to these four versions is the way they stretch the boundaries of the cascading passages in the first theme and convey heightened emotional depth.
Another thing in common is that each performance is on the slow side; that's my preference as I feel that sufficient time is in place to allow the artist to convey the details of the work.
2nd Variation: Melody lines go off in all directions and seem to be entirely on their own; yet, there is perfect unison of the voices. This Variation is a gorgeous one which makes me think of a journey to fulfillment.
Level 1 - This level includes fine performances which are simply overshadowed by many others. The 2nd variations from Schirmer, Pinnock, Beausejour, Cole, Ross, Hill, Gilbert, Jarrett, Verlet, Xiao Mei, Richter, Leonhardt II, Hantai, Lifschitz, and Ingolfsdottir are good examples; the readings are very enjoyable but miss the high level of expressiveness and/or creativity of the best versions. Nikolayeva isn't very good; I never sense that she really knows what she wants to do with the music and ends up being quite eclectic for no purpose I can fathom. Hewitt's fairly good, but she continues with soft projection and musical conception which sounds rather alien. Vieru is much too demonstrative for my tastes; Gould(82) gives a commanding performance while Vieru's is somewhat combative. There's quite a difference.
Vinikour, Suzuki, and Koopman are a little choppy in the 2nd Variation with damaged flow. Perahia's version is a case of at least one trill too many, and Gould III gives a fine performance but with instrusive sound. Schiff and Yudina bring us some abrupt changes in tempo. Dershavina gives up some expressiveness for speed. Although I was relatively pleased with the sound for Landowska/RCA in the 1st Variation, her instrument sounds rather unpleasant and sour in the 2nd Variation. As with the Aria, Feltsman takes the higher register route, but this time in the repeat of the second theme; the results are no more pleasing than in the Aria.
Level 2 - Gould I is super-fast and a thrill; this time, no poetry is lost and his accenting is fanatstic. Landowska/EMI is on the slow side, highly poetic, and exacting; the combinations are illuminating. Serkin has a quick and great walking gait from the bass line that's unique to my ears and very pleasureable. Tipo gives a dream-like reading that's mesmerizing. Gould II is a commanding version with a quick tempo. Tureck III is not as pleasing as her DG version because of the overly strong bass response. Tureck I is a little too slow and lacks the vibrancy of her DG issue, and Tureck IV has a slight problem with glassy high notes. Korloliov sounds
like he's having a great time and conveying the full measure of joyous and exuberant youth. Rosen's performance is quick and insistent – quite distinctive.
Level 3 - Tureck/DG is pure magic. The performance is very slow with every note having significance; I get the feeling that I'm listening to full story with diverse and deep emotional themes. Tureck's left hand trills are a delight which I've never really heard as important in any other version. Leonhardt's performance on Vanguard is imbued with supreme optimism; his playing switches from delicate to strong and back just at the right moments.
Update on the Turecks: Tureck/DG is currently well ahead of all rivals; her incisiveness, richness, , and depth of feeling have been exceptional. Her other three versions have also been better than most others. If this pattern continues, I'll be pressed to offer my opinion as to the value of buying all four recordings. Up to this point, the major differences among them relate to sound quality.
Sound Report: The most recent issue of Fanfare Magazine finds the Editor stating that record reviews do not pay enough attention to recorded sound quality. I don't necessarily agree with that opinion, but I should provide some comments about the sound of the Goldberg Variations recordings I am reviewing. I've already mentioned some sound aspects of the four Tureck recordings. Her DG and St. Petersburg recordings have the better sound; the Philips issue is not modern sound but sufficient, and the VAI in Buckley's home has an overly strong bass response.
The Gould/CBC issue has some intrusive distortion, the earlier Gould/Sony issue is not problematic, and the Gould '82' recording is quite fine. Of Leonhardt's two recordings, the Teldec is much better than the Vanguard. Concerning Landowska's two recordings, the EMI gives us recessed sound while the RCA is up-front and personal; both have fair sound properties which don't often interfere with the performances.
Among the remaining piano versions, Koroliov's set has the best soundstage - crisp, rich, and vibrant. Feltsman's sound tends to be glassy towards the upper registers, Yudina's sound is rather raw, Nikolayeva's is not quite state of the art, Tipo's tends to have a haze over it, and Vieru's has a 'ping' on the higher notes which can be erased with excellent controls. The other piano recordings have very good sound.
For the remaining harpsichord recordings, only Richter's and Ingolfsdottir's sound has any problems. Richter's 1958 sound is fairly good, but don't expect it to enhance the performances. Ingolfsdottir's sound presents a strange situation. In my car, the sound is fantastic with clarity, richness, and detail. However, on my best equipment, the sound is rather oppressive and overly resonant; with headphones, the sound problem
is most pronounced. Be on your guard with this one.
Overall, I do want to assure readers that none of the recordings has sound which regularly inhibits enjoyment of the performances. However, those who insist on good/modern sound would be well advised to stay away from recordings from the 1950's or earlier.
Feedback to the above Review
Bradley Lehman wrote (July 6, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] This looks interesting and I'm looking forward to reading it all as a whole after all the installments arrive.
The roster of recordings is impressive...but I'm disappointed to see four of the very best omitted:
- Gould live in Salzburg, 1959 (best of his four recorded performances, in my opinion)
- Leonhardt on dhm, 1976 (best of his three)
- Christiane Jaccottet on various budget labels
- Joel Spiegelman on synthesizer, 1988, East-West 90927
Also, to prepare my expectations: will there be any summing up of the performances as a whole, or only variation by variation comparisons (disconnected sound bites)? I know we've had a similar discussion before, but will the cumulative effect of each performance (straight through) count for anything in this survey? [Whether or not the recordings were "shot in sequence," I'd wager that at least 90% of the performers intended the performances to be enjoyed whole, in sequence. That intentional placement within the whole affects EVERY NOTE of a good performance that has any flow to it...everything is affected by what has gone before and by what is to come.]
Donald Satz wrote (July 6, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] It's quite a situation when forty versions are being reviewed, and there are many not not included. But, there are financial restraints and I wanted to reach 40 and review in 4 groups of 10 each. As it happens, the Jaccottet performance is in a local store on the Intercord label at a cost of slightly more than nothing. But, I already had the forty I was aiming for; also, I'm not as much of a Jaccottet fan as Brad. I will likely buy Jaccottet soon and do a review at some point.
As for summing up each set of performances, I'll be doing that at the end of the 15th Variation and at the end of the 30th/da capo aria. The reason for the summations is not to recognize the 'intent' of anyone, but to provide additional insight to potential buyers.
Yes, we have gone over the 'intent', 'cumulative impact', and 'total architecture' issues quite a lot. They are perfectly valid approaches as is the 'one variation at a time' approach. I try to include both ends. In my personal listening habits, when I'm not listening for review purposes, I tend to go with a few variations at a time. Listening straight through is not in my nature, but I do so for the reviews. The same applies to my attendence at religous services. I'm always promoting the idea of 10 minute breaks after 20 minutes of a service; nobody seems to like that notion. My wife once responded that I'd probably prefer one giant break instead of any service at all; she was certainly on the right track.
Pablo Fagoaga wrote (July 6, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] If I had to name a member of this group that would NOT like a synthesizer version of the Goldbergs (or, in fact, any other Bach work) that name would undoubtly be Brad Lehman. I don't know you beyond your postings, but they're quite explicite in other directions, far away from synthesizer readings, and more likely purist. I am terribly curious about the reasons behind your preference for Spiegelman's version!!
Charles Francis wrote (July 7, 2001):
[To Pablo Fagoaga] The way I see it, Bach went in for the best and latest musical technology. After all, he travelled all the way to Berlin as an old man, just to try out the new Silbermann piano models. So if he were alive today, the synthesizer would have to be his instrument of choice.
Kirk McElhearn wrote (July 7, 2001):
[To Charles Francis] Have to be, I don't think so. While he could become interested, the synthesizer does not have the touch needed to play real classical music (at least most don't).
Bradley Lehman wrote (July 8, 2001):
[To Pablo Fagoaga] Spiegelman's performance? It's fun and sometimes over the edge of "silly." It's light-hearted entertainment. I like it not because it's on synthesizer, but because it's musically direct, imaginative, flexible. Spiegelman catches the bubbly spirit of the music.
It's as I was saying about Don Dorsey's Italian Concerto (on "Bachbusters") a few days ago. The clarity of compositional thought is fantastic, the performance is viscerally engaging, and it gives joy.
I wouldn't pick these as only versions of anything, but they're fun to listen to occasionally as supplements. They're both sort of like William Malloch's orchestration of the Art of Fugue: inventive, fresh, and vigorous. It's Bach seen through a kaleidoscope.
Alberto Cobo wrote (July 10, 2001):
Isidro Barrio, piano / "Goldberg Variationen" - Koch Classics - 1993
Juozas Rimas wrote (July 23, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] A very pithy round-up: I wonder how much time it takes to actually listen to dozens of renditions of a 30-part work with many repeats. It's good Bach won't "fade" even after that many listens.
However, I think everything goes toward Tureck/DG's supremacy. I also have suddenly felt strong affinity to extremely slow and clear versions of certain pieces (eg Gould's hyper-slow-and-beautiful 11th sinfonia) but I try to separate them from the faster interpetations. I admit that I prefer the slow way of playing the 11th sinfonia - maybe Don can admit that he prefers slower Goldberg Variations? Anyway, there could be groups of slow and fast renditions with their respective leaders.
I haven't yet bought Tureck/DG (probably will - it'd be nice to have a slow version of Goldbergs) but I can listen to all the sound clips from the CD at:
(those reading Don's reviews and not having huge CD libraries at home may consider streaming the CD’s at cdnow.com or the labels' sites)
Starting with the 1st variation, it's obvious that fast playing (as Gould 1955) and slow playing (Tureck/DG) produce absolutely different worlds hardly possible to compare. You have an amazing electrified flow in Gould and extreme clarity and detail in Tureck.
P.S. If Gould's (1955) 25th variation won't be on Level 3, I'll refuse to read on:)
Donald Satz wrote (July 24, 2001):
< Juozas Rimas writes: I wonder how much time it takes to actually listen to dozens of renditions of a 30-part work with many repeats. >It's taking me about 5 hours per variation which would come out to the neighborhood of 150 hours plus playing each version straight-through a couple of times. There's more than "listening" involved; just making the best audio adjustments for each version adds up to much time.
< I admit that I prefer the slow way of playing the 11th sinfonia - maybe Don can admit that he prefers slower Goldberg Variations? >
There's probably some validity in that, but it always revolves around what the artist is doing with the slow tempo. Just playing slower is not going to win the day - greater expressiveness and some imaginative pacing and/or ornamentation is a must. So far, Tureck's DG release provides those features.
Peter Schenkman wrote (July 24, 2001):
Try Wilhelm Kempff, one of the most beautiful performances ever set down.
Continue on Part 2