Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Round-Up of Goldberg Variations Recordings, Part 2
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Donald Satz wrote (July 19, 2001):
Late Arrivals!!! - Generally, I don't add any versions to a review project once I've started. However, a fine gentleman was kind enough to send me two additional harpsichord recordings of the Goldberg Variations, and I've decided to include them in this round-up:
Alan Curtis - EMI 63062 - Recorded 1976 - TT 76:10
Fernando Valenti - Sine Non Qua 79045 - Recorded 1983 - TT 45:58
Concerning Mr. Curtis, his Aria is very nice; both repeats are observed, and the playing is angular. Still, many other versions give the Aria greater tension and sadness(level 1). In the 1st Variation, there's great bounce and joy(level 2). For the 2nd variation, Curtis displays much subtle expressiveness(level 2).
Fernando Valenti is quite slow in the Aria with a wonderful degree of comfort, sadness, and tension(level 2); he does skip both repeats. Valenti provides to the 1st Variation the bounce and joy lacking in the Curtis reading(level 2). Valenti's 2nd Variation is a good one but lacking distinction(level 1).
3rd Variation - Although this variation conveys much serenity, I always get the feeling that Bach is on the cusp of 'busting out'. The anticipation of it is exhilarating. Another great feature of the piece is its bass line and the interplay with the right hand. Also, there's an undercurrent of sadness to the music which is well conveyed in any excellent performance.
Level 1 - Beausejour's bass line is rather ugly and not well-defined; that just about kills his performance. Pinnock, Cole, Hantai, and Vinikour are fast but not exciting; they also miss some of the nuances. Tureck IV gives the audience in St. Petersburg a relatively soft bass-line. Xaio Mei is the opposite of elegant in the first theme; she's actually tough and gruff. Dershavina doesn't sound to be of one mind concerning the music; must be a case of multiple personality or willfulness. Vieru is nonchalant one moment, highly expressive the next; the first half of the initial theme is as bland as it gets. Gilbert's performance is quick and rather exciting; however, it's very busy and not well detailed.
Ingolfsdottir's reading has hardly a trace of sadness and is rather bland; her sound is also cavernous. Gould II is a surprisingly subdued performance which leaves me flat. Landowska/EMI has an exciting second theme, but the first theme sounds increasingly rushed. I used to think so highly of the fast Leifschitz version, but then Perahia came along and made Leifschitz sound undernourished with only adequate accenting. Schiff's bass line is erratic and seems to not be in unison with his right hand. Koopman lacks some emotional depth particularly in the second theme, and Rosen uses a halting tempo which I feel damages the music's flow. The bass line in Tureck III's performance is too strong even though the overall reading is quite
delicate and even precious.
I rarely mention the length of pauses between themes, but the one between the first theme and its repeat is excessive from Nikolayeva. In addition, she also is on the precious side. Koroliov, Gould I, and Suzuki give me plenty of strength and vitality without any excitement or significant emotional tie-in. While listening to Hill, I kept hoping that he would really come to life but it didn't happen; switch to Scott Ross for a reading with stature. Although Feltsman has an active and staccato left hand, his right hand expression is low in the first theme; to top it off, the 'higher register' man is at it again. Tipo gives another dream-like performance which doesn't caputure me this time; I don't want a haze over this variation. Involvement is on the low end from Keith Jarrett in his slow and ho-hum reading.
Level 2 - Ross, Richter, Valenti, Curtis, and Leonhardt II give exciting and expressive readings. Yudina's not only exciting, she wants to do battle; it's a very interesting and rewarding issue. Peter Serkin uses a slow tempo to reveal a rich and diversified variation. Tureck I likely would have been at the top level except that the sound is not kind to her highest notes which are a little piercing and distracting.
Level 3 - Leonhardt I, Landowska/RCA, Perahia, Hewitt, Verlet, Schirmer, Tureck/DG, and Gould III. What most impresses me about both Leonhardt and Landowska is their command over structure; it's as if they were injected with Bach's DNA. Gould's is the most tender version I've ever heard, and Hewitt's bass line and the diversity she applies to the music is a 'must' listening experience; she gives us sighing notes in the first repeat and mixes/alternates staccato and legato elements superbly. Perahia's the one who is 'busting out' with a fast and thrilling performance, and he does this without any sacrifice of emotional investment.
Blandine Verlet brings many great attributes to the 3rd Variation; the one I like best is the greater sadness she conveys than any other version. Verlet's sighing notes in the first theme are of the bashful variety and it works beautifully. Speaking of beauty, I have to sometimes give big points to an absolutely beautiful interpretation, and Schirmer earns the points. Her poetry is terrific and nothing ever sounds forced. Tureck/DG concludes the large numbers at the top. She's in command, accenting is exceptional, and the reading has abundant depth. But I love best her elegance which
shines through from start to finish.
4th Variation - Exhilarating and heroic music with a great swagger and bounce. The first level finds Gould III whose performance is very good but with very intrusive sound. Better recorded performances with good energy come from a host of others: Feltsman, Vinikour, Nikolayeva, Ingolfsdottir, Leonhardt II, Suzuki, Cole, Beausejour, Jarrett, Schiff, Koopman, Ross, Verlet, Dershavina, Koroliov, Gould I & II, Perahia, Rosen, Lifschitz, Hantai, Xiao Mei, Hill, Serkin, Vieru, Yudina, and both Landowska versions. Valenti's version tends to sound like a slow-motion account with reduced voltage.
Level 2 - Tipo, Schirmer, Pinnock, Curtis, Leonhardt, Richter, Hewitt, Gilbert, and the Turecks except for the DG version. These ten versions possess the exhilaration and bounce of the better level 1 versions but surpass them for also giving the listener an irresistable up-down movement of grace and strength.
Level 3 - This only leaves the Tureck version on Deutsche Grammophon. Could it be the CD-pluscore with its inviting cursor which weaves its way through the music? Nah, I wouldn't fall for that trick although it is mesmerizing to watch. Tureck's DG performance is the best of all because it's my idea of perfection: pacing, accenting, emotional depth, great bounce for the slow tempo, fantastic sound, and an up-down motion to kill for. Right after this sentence I'm going back to that bewitching cursor.
5th Variation - Vitality and joy highlight this variation. With some exceptions, I prefer slower versions which bring out more detail and still possess a high level of energy and joy.
Level 1 - Koopman, Hill, Hantai, Suzuki, Vinikour, Landowska/EMI, Leonhardt I, Gilbert, Koroliov, Rosen, Dershavina, Hewitt, Lifschitz, Perahia, Feltsman, Schirmer, Xiao Mei, Serkin, and Valenti give fine performances having much vitality and joy. However, none of them delivers great detail and other versions offer more joy as well. The three Gould versions are speed merchants more concerned with vitality than any satisfaction or joy; if pressed, I'd go with Gould I on Sony. Schiff and Nikolayeva take relatively hushed approaches which I find overly precious. Tipo uses a very fast tempo and has trouble negotiating the second theme; she doesn't repeat it, and that's just as well.
Level 2 - Maggie Cole is very fast and exuberant; given her tempo, the display of detail is superb. Beausejour, Richter, Curtis, Pinnock, Jarrett, and Ingolfsdottir give slower performances with an excellent mix of joy and detail. Also at this level are Landowska/RCA and Leonhardt/Telwhich benefit from being a little slower paced and greater detailed than their earlier versions. Tureck I would have been at the top level except for a very subdued beginning to the second theme and its repeat. Tureck III and IV have to deal with some glassy sound from higher notes which I find
distracting. Yudina and Vieru are fast with great propulsion; Yudina does apply the brakes at the end of the second theme, but I still love that propulsion.
Level 3 - Three of the slower versions dominate the top: Tureck/DG, Scott Ross, and Blandine Verlet. Although much slower than the norm, these readings fully deliver the music's vitality and joy. In addition, they bring out all the wonderful detail of Bach's creation. So far, I've had Tureck/DG at the top level throughout with fantastic interpretations and superb sound quality.
6th Variation - This variation provides a kaleidoscope of colors as it smoothly winds up and down. This all-encompassing kaleidoscope is greatly enhanced by a strong left hand projection as long as it is not oppressive. I don't think there's any place for drama or aggressiveness in the variation, although a sufficient spark of life is needed.
Level 1 - The Landowska/RCA left hand doesn't come through expressively and has no significant presence to it. Yudina is too aggressive. Tureck I is too slow and sedate; she needs more life. Although not quite as slow, Tureck III also isn't sufficiently animated. Vieru is too dramatic. I hear Gould I as running in spurts with damage to flow and continuity. Leonhardt I and Tureck II & IV are too slow and sedentary. Vinikour skims the music's surface. Koroliov can be too dramatic and he uses a left hand staccato in the second theme which I find jerky. Xiao Mei is as seamless as can be and quite lovely, but I find her too demure as if she's unwilling to put any stamp of her own on the piece. Suzuki is a case of at least one too many pesky hesitations. Tipo's version was once one of my favorites; in current times, I find it reminds me of a 'glue' product. Tipo goes way beyond 'seamless' into the area of 'can't be separated'. Feltsman is back to the "highest register on repeats" phase of his life; other than that, the performance is excellent. Nikolayeva goes through a series of starts-stops, and she also is overly dramatic in the second theme.
Level 2 - These harpsichord versions have the all-encompassing kaleidoscope of colors and provide much joy and comfort: Leonhardt II, Curtis, Landowska I, Cole, Hantai, Hill, Ingolfsdottir, Koopman, Richter, Verlet, and Valenti. Gorgeous piano performances come from Serkin, Perahia, Hewitt, and Gould III. Rosen, Dershavina, and Lifschitz provide an irresistible insistence from start to finish; their bass lines really punch out the music. Gould II is lightning fast and manages to retain the music's poetry.
Level 3 - I find each version at this level to be spiritually uplifting. The exceptional harpsichord performances are from Scott Ross, Kenneth Gilbert, Luc Beausejour, Trevor Pinnock, and Keith Jarrett; they all have an encompassing bass line with a 'churning' motion as if an eerie brew is being mixed. Also, each has stunning ascending passages toward the conclusion of the second theme. On piano, Ragnar Schirmer delivers a mesmerizing bass line which is the best of any piano version. Although there are a few versions of the forty-two which entail a wide breadth of dynamics and tempo, the Andras Schiff interpretation is the only one of them which totally gains my affection. He varies his regimen at just the right moments with a reading which is likely the most durable for repeated listening.
Update: Tureck/DG remains first in my estimation, but there are a few harpsichord versions which are not far behind: Leonhardt/Vanguard, Landowska/RCA, Richter, Ross, Curtis, Leonhardt/Teldec, Pinnock, Verlet, and Gilbert. At the other end, the Vinikour and Xiao Mei versions have been the least attractive issues which is not to say that they have little to offer. Of course, there's a long way to go, and the variations tend to become more complicated and provide greater depth as the work progresses.
Feedback to the above Review
Bradley Lehman wrote (July 19, 2001):
A few questions of clarification come to mind...see interspersed.
< Donald Satz wrote:
3rd Variation - Although this variation conveys much serenity, I always get the feeling that Bach is on the cusp of 'busting out'. The anticipation of it is exhilarating. Another great feature of the piece is its bass line and the interplay with the right hand. Also, there's an undercurrent of sadness to the music which is well conveyed in any excellent performance. >
All of these characters, like a composite Platonic ideal of the way to play var 3...that's asking a lot of a performer who's just trying to play a variation in the way s/he feels is best in the context of the whole set. I'm wondering: which recording(s) most formed your opinions? And how much (if any) does it matter which ones you heard when getting to know the music for the very first time?
Is it a personal preference? Or is it something really objective, like the "doctrine of affections" and the specific rhetorical devices Bach uses in his phrases?
Myself, I don't hear any undercurrent of sadness or serenity when I look at this piece on the page and hear it in my head (or play it). I see and hear a clever strict canon at the unison with a vigorous and free bass line. So, I am wondering why it comes across so differently to us.
I'm not claiming objectivity for myself, either: I come to this variation as a composer and performer. It's not surprising that the prominent things I notice are the music's technical craftsmanship and texture. For me the variation's character is also deeply affected by the music that comes immediately before and after it. Even if (for the sake of argument) I'd see this canonic var 3 as serene when considered in a vacuum (which I don't), I'd temper that to something more bouncy. Why? Because var 2 (a marvelous fake canon) ends with parallel sixths that technically cannot be played legato, and var 4 is a robust dance. Plus in the big picture there's plenty of pathos to come, so let's keep these first several variations all cheery, like a friendly greeting at the door!
< (...) 6th variation:
Although there are a few versions of the forty-two which entail a wide breadth of dynamics and tempo, the Andras Schiff interpretation is the only one of them which totally gains my affection. He varies his regimen at just the right moments with a reading which is likely the most durable for repeated listening. >
This one really caught my notice. In all previous postings you've regularly said the Schiff recording is worthless to you except for the way he plays var 28. Why the sudden reversal of Schiff's fortune here, leaping to the top of the heap in some other variation altogether?
< (...) [through Var 6 so far...]
Update: Tureck/DG remains first in my estimation, but there are a few harpsichord versions which are not far behind: Leonhardt/Vanguard, Landowska/RCA, Richter, Ross, Curtis, Leonhardt/Teldec, Pinnock, Verlet, and Gilbert. At the other end, the Vinikour and Xiao Mei versions have been the least attractive issues which is not to say that they have little to offer. Of course, there's a long way to go, and the variations tend to become more complicated and provide greater depth as the work progresses. >
In your future installments I'm eager to watch the rise of Zhu (with whom you seem to be on a given-name basis, as Xiao Mei) from "least attractive" to the eventual "recommended" that you gave her in your opening statement. Does she build her position gradually, or is there some later point where she suddenly offers enough to earn an overall recommendation?
As you'll recall, I think hers is one of the very best piano recordings of the Goldbergs that I've ever heard. So I'm rooting for her in this race. (In the Spike Jones classic, Beetlebaum does win despite the inauspicious start.)
My bigger question for today, though, is: are we witnessing the seeds of a new aesthetic venture, Rotisserie Gol?
As I'm sure you're aware, there are fantasy "Rotisserie" leagues for professional baseball, hockey, golf, basketball, Nascar, and other sports. Players are traded and "fielded" on their value as individuals, judged by their stats. There are whole industries supporting this hobby of eager fans, some of whom play for real money. (See, for example, http://www.allstarstats.com .) Is there some day in our future when a player's stats matter _more_ in the Rotisserie leagues than they do in real life, as part of a team? Will players be fired in real life when their Rotisserie stats take a dive, as if this were a stock market? Will a sport be discontinued altogether in favor of its meta-equivalent, Rotisserie? Major League Baseball itself already puts fantasy league articles and tips on their web site; see http://www.mlb.com/NASApp/mlb/mlb/fantasy/mlb_fantasy_entry.jsp
Will professional musicians be judged by how we play 16 or 32 bars at a time, the baseball equivalent of one at-bat, as the end in itself? (16 consecutive bars of unedited perfection is more than one can say for some singers and players who make records, already, but that's a different issue.) Does Ton Koopman beat Trevor Pinnock in the Rotisserie trills league? As I joked a few weeks ago, Georgia O'Keeffe sure does a nice job with green.
Donald Satz wrote (July 20, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] My preferences concerning the third variation are naturally personal. The versions which most lead me to the "busting out" and "sad" elements are the Perahia and Verlet issues which are a long way off from being my first exposure to the Goldbergs. That category belongs to Maria Tipo and Andras Schiff.
Concerning Schiff's 6th variation, I must have changed my mind about it. Since Brad had indicated in the past that I am reluctant to change my mind, he might consider this a good thing.
Although I realize that the architecture of the work is significant, I also feel that each variation wonderfully stands on its own. Versions which cover both ends would be the most rewarding; as I stated before, I will be giving an architectural opinion of each recording at the end of the 15th variation and the at the end of the work.
As for Xiao Mei, her performance has been recommendable up to this point. That doesn't mean it's one of the better versions. As I remember from my initial review a few months ago, her performances take a nose-dive from variation 10 thru 14, then rise considerably with the 15th variation. Whether I'll feel the same way this time out is still to be determined.
Overall, I'm a bit perplexed at Brad's premise that a performance can be top-rate just based on the technical aspects. There has to be some impact on the emotional juices as well. Otherwise, the reading only has admiration going for it.
Alberto Cobo wrote (July 21, 2001):
Good work! Check out this link for the beginnings of a discography of Goldberg Recordings: http://www.a30a.com
Denis Fodor wrote (July 23, 2001):
< Donald Satz writes: Late Arrivals!!! - Generally, I don't add any versions to a review project once I've started. >Anyway, gratefully accepted as a lagniappe. Don's really hit his stride in these reviews. His is really quite an exceptional service (along with that of Janos and Steve Schwartz).
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