Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Round-Up of Goldberg Variations Recordings, Part 7
Continue from Part 6
Donald Satz wrote (October 15, 2001)):
20th Variation - Highly extrovert, fast, and propulsive music. Over the years, I've settled into feeling that pure excitement is the prime ingredient of most performances.
Level 1 - To be on this rung, the performance has momentum which sags for various reasons. Feltsman should have skipped the first section repeat, because he sounds quite awkward at times. van Schie softens his approach a few times through the piece; this puts a damper on the adrenalin.
An artist can take a piece of music so fast that the tempo does not sound natural and the excitement generated is actually damaged. This is what Lifschitz accomplishes; he seems totally occupied with making it through the piece at a tremendous speed.
Peter Serkin delivers excitement in spurts, sounding like a series of episodes. Barenboim decides to often use the 'hushed' approach; it certainly provides quite a contrast with his more assertive moments, but I feel it's too much like a lullaby.
Level 2 - These versions keep up the momentum/projection and provide a fine degree of excitement: Vieru, Tipo, Dershavina, Xiao Mei, Schiff, Yudina, Kipnis, Beausejour, Richter, Ross, Hill, Koopman, Hewitt, Jaccottet, Valenti, Jarrett, Schirmer, Cole, Nikolayeva, Rosen, Payne, Curtis, and both Landowska and Leonhardt pairs.
Each of the Tureck versions resides on level 2 courtesy of very strong projection and accenting in each performance. Ingolfsdottir is quite slow with a gorgeous performance which also manages to provide some excitement.
For my tastes, something significant holds back each Gould version. Gould I is too fast, II gets into some note-banging, III is hit by the sound virus, and IV doesn't have well projected runs at all times.
Vartolo is very interesting. His is the slowest of all versions, and it is slow. But it's very lovely, and his hesitations enhance the beauty. If you're looking for thrills, Vartolo is not your man.
Level 3 - Pinnock, Vinikour, Perahia, Hantai, and Suzuki speed along and create large waves of excitement with a virtuosity and precision which is very impressive and natural.
Gilbert is not fast at all, but the thrilling descending run toward the end of the first section and his exuberance adds up to a level of excitement that can't be beat. Bladine Verlet's imaginative phrasing and exceptional detail is irresitable. For a version combining great strength and propulsion, Koroliov's has no peer; the energy he keeps accumulating and releasing is enormous.
21st Variation - The subtle drama, urgency, and the tenderness of this variation make it my favorite; frequent shifts in tempo and volume also greatly enhance the music's poignancy.
The above is my traditional way of hearing this variation. However, there are at least two other approaches which I find equally valid. One is to apply a gentle and calming touch, the other is to place great priority on momentum and rhythmic vitality.
Level 1 - Barenboim takes my traditional prefence, but the higher registers sound like they're coming from behind a haze and Barenboim's right hand projection is sometimes undernourished.
One of the dangers to playing this variation with a great deal of hesitation and tempo/volume changes is that it can sound like it's servicing the performer and not the composer. This is where I find Schiff to reside; it's just too much of a good thing and takes on a willful characteristic.
Level 2 - Ingolfsdottir, Vinikour, Beausejour, Koopman, Leonhardt I, and are excellent versions but well below the level 3 performances. Landowska's EMI performance is at a high level, but the sound interference is heavy and quite a distraction. Of the four Tureck versions, Tureck III has a somewhat casual run-through about it.
Level 3 - There are many versions in this category. Koroliov provides a luxuriating and lovely performance. Hewitt's gentleness blended with an irresistable rhythm and delightful accenting results in a sublime reading. Hantai is also quite gentle and a total pleasure. Verlet and Valenti provide subtle yet intense urgency throughout their performances. Ross, Rosen, Perahia, and Yudina go for vitality, flow, and momentum; my feet can't stop moving.
Nikolayeva is extremely slow and succeeds at it beautifully with a wealth of nuance. Pinnock and Leonhardt II are almost as slow as Nikolayeva; their readings are aristocratic and commanding. van Schie gives an absolutely gorgeous and seamless performance, while Kipnis and Curtis deliver emotionally deep interpretations. Delicious blending of urgency and gentleness are provided by Tipo, Xiao Mei, Payne, and Dershavina. Both Hill and Cole give expansive readings of poignancy.
Other great performances come from Gilbert, Landowska/RCA, Jarrett, Suzuki, Richter, Vieru, Schirmer, Serkin, Tureck II & IV, and the surprisingly slow Lifschitz. The Goulds are here except for Gould II.
Level 3 Plus - Music that benefits from hesitations and quick changes in tempo and volume is tailor made for Sergio Vartolo. He is inside the variation giving us all the nuance, beauty, and diversity offered; it's a perfect match.
I think of Jaccottet's reading as similar to Vartolo's but on a smaller scale; where she surpasses Vartolo is in the uplifting spirit she conveys. Jaccottet's performance 'glows' from beginning to end like a beacon of light.
Tureck I, the one that's on Philips, is light-years ahead of her other three versions. It is slower and exquisitely nuanced. The sadness is subtle but so intense, making this the most poignant version I know.
My memory of Gould II's reading was that it was slower than his others and posessed significantly more diversity and emotional breadth. I still feel the same about this wonderful performance. In many ways it's quite similar to Tureck I; it is just quicker and stronger.
22nd Variation - Great music often works in a variety of approaches. The 22nd Variation strikes me as being within that category. Wonderful versions are introspective, extroverted, joyful, poignant, heroic, playful, subtle - the list goes on.
Level 3 - Right, let's start off with the good stuff. Lifschitz is as good as it gets. He is as slow as possible while insuring that the performance does not drag. Both sections begin in a thoroughly tender, poignant, and graceful manner, and both repeats really zero in on assertiveness and heroism/ceremony. All of this allows me to luxuriate in the music and then get stirred up by the heroism. Lifschitz likely has much artistic maturing ahead of him, but the interpretation and execution he provides in this piece
tells me that he can reach the heights as a Bach performing artist. The same comments apply to Koroliov's more assertive reading; be ready to turn down the volume.
Hewitt gives a quick and joy-filled performance. Her first section, light and soft-spoken with an heroic repeat, is particularly effective.Hewitt totally conveys the youthful joy in the music. Xiao Mei is mysterious, lovely, and rather hushed with excellent contrasting passages of strength.
For a sharp and vivacious account, Gilbert can't be beat. He's ceremonial and uplifting throughout the piece. Other version that ring out with happiness and vitality come from Beausejour, Valenti, Ross, Ingolfsdottir, and Suzuki.
The four Tureck versions have some strong similarities: slow tempos, much staccato, and the alternating of soft and 'charged' deliveries. Her softer passages are not as much tender as exploratory; some won't care for that approach. Even with the similarities, I think that the Philips and St. Petersburg performances are preferable to the other two which are rather soft-spoken and undernourished.
Of the four Gould versions, one has less bounce to it and tends to be too soft for my tastes in the second section - Gould/Salzburg. The other three versions are exceptional and particularly determined readings.
Every now and then I stumble on a performance of a work which just fto have the perfect pacing. That's how I feel about the Curtis version; in addition, it's a sharp and highly poetic reading.
Level 2 - Maria Tipo takes the heroic approach with a very strong application of dotted rhythms. The result is a very rewarding issue, although there is a touch of note banging in the stronger passages. Kipnis has a big-boned sound which is the epitome of power; it still captures the music's nuances.
Schirmer's second section is dynamic, but the first section possesses little vitality with the repeat traversing the same ground. Verlet, Nikolayeva, and Vartolo use constant hesitations which are effective and distinctive. Richter provides a pristine sound which invariably wins me over. van Schie is most imaginative in the first repeat and provides an excellent performance with plenty of vitality.
Schiff is demure througout, but he does deliver a lovely performance. Vitality is the key to the excellent Dershavina reading. Pinnock's vitality comes from sheer power. Leonhardt I would have been at level 3 except I would have liked greater expressiveness in his second section. Both Leonhardt II and Jarrett are among the small number who omit the first section repeat; that's a repeat I love to hear.
Others at this level include Hantai, Cole, Jaccottet, Payne, Tureck II and III, Vinikour, Koopman, Serkin, Perahia, Gould/Salzburg, Vieru, and both Landowska versions.
Level 1 - Barenboim alternates between tenderness and heroism, doing neither in an exceptional manner. He creates much less heroic impact than Tipo and seems just soft, not tender, when compared to Lifschitz. Also, Barenboim is one of the best note-bangers around; Tipo is an amateur in comparison.
Except for the first section repeat, I find Rosen too demure. I'd raise him a notch if his performance was a gorgeous one like Schiff's, but that's not the case. Hill is very fast, and I don't feel he carries it off well. Also, he slows down toward the end of the second section and it sounds contrived.
Extreme dynamic range is the undoing of the Feltsman and Yudina versions. Feltsman is ridiculously loud and aggravating in both repeats, and Yudina just has her moments when she feels required to bust out.
23rd Variation - With little exception, I find that this variation works best when conveying much urgency, strength, and momentum. Otherwise, it tends to be just a pretty piece of music. Some of the forty-nine versions 'have it', but most don't. Many versions also have a penchant for reticence or slow-downs or hesitations; I feel these techniques damage the flow of the music.
Level 1 - The 'pretty' and nothing more performance is best exemplified by Jarrett's reading which is on the slow side, flat, and much too relaxed. van Schie gives an even prettier performance, but it's all too comfortable. Valenti undermines any significant urgency/momentum with pauses, hesitations, and slow-downs. Rosen, Schirmer, Barenboim, and Hewitt are too dainty to generate much urgency, and Tipo has a slow-down moment in the second section which puts a halt to progression.
I thought that Vinikour might be a great match for the music, but his sense of urgency is often flat. Both Leonhardt versions and Gilbert are somewhat sedate. The Turecks are disappointing; Tureck I goes soft at times, III is precious, and II & IV are simply too slow. Yudina does provide much urgency, but she has trouble negotiating fast passages with trills.
Other versions not possessing consistent urgency or tension come from Vieru, Ingolfsdottir, Pinnock, Nikolayeva, Schiff, Cole, Payne, Feltsman, Dershavina, Richter, Xiao Mei, Curtis, Verlet, Koopman, Hill, Lifschitz, Serkin, Beausejour, Ross, Jaccottet, Hantai, and Suzuki.
Although I'm placing Vartolo's version at this level, it does deserve some comment. Nikolayeva takes almost 3 minutes to complete the piece, and it's one slow version. Vartolo tops her with a reading over 3 minutes. Given his tempo and his hesitations, the performance can't create what I treasure about this variation. Still, I do admire how Vartolo manages to keep the momentum going and provide a rewarding interpretation.
Level 2 - Kipnis, both Landowska issues, the powerful Perahia, Koroliov, and the Goulds are the excellent issues. I'd just like to add that each Gould version is very similar to the others: very fast, great virtuosity, and abundant momentum.
Level 3 - Vacant. I suppose I'm being too fussy. If I had to put any version here, it would be the one from Koroliov. But I'm still waiting for the performance that lifts me off my feet.
Update: Concerning ratings up to this point, the numbers are getting closer. Although Tureck/DG maintains the lead, there are a few versions well within striking distance: Gould I, Gould II, Gould IV, Gilbert, and Ross.
Leonhardt/Vanguard is starting to lose ground as the performances become somewhat mundane. At Barenboim's rate, he's going down the toilet. He may think he is serving Bach's music, but I'm increasingly confident that he's only serving himself.
Sine the last update, Koroliov has made significant strides. His strength and propulsion are very impressive; he also can be gorgeous and tender as in his 21st Variation.