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25.4.06

Goldberg Variations 

Bach's 'Tuning Scribble' acc. Lehman, upside-down, 'readable'

Alex Ross 'Critic's Notebook' - click to see in full
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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Richard Egarr

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Pierre Hantaï II

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Masaaki Suzuki

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Keith Jarrett

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Céline Frisch

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Hantaï I

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Wanda Landowska II

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Wanda Landowska I

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Gould ('55 & '81)

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Murray Perahia

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Konstantin Lifschitz

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Charles Rosen

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Rosalyn Tureck VI
Richard Egarr has long proven himself one of the finest harpsichordists in Bach, his recordings for Harmonia Mundi – especially his collaborations with Andrew Manze – being the proof. What he isn’t necessarily, is the most exciting harpsichordist (yes, at Ionarts we think this is not an oxymoron). That title may well go to Pierre Hantaï or Christophe Rousset. Or, as it turns out Masaaki Suzuki.


Egarr’s latest disc is a recording of the Clavierübung consisting of an Aria with Diverse Variations for the Harpsichord with Two Manuals Composed for Music Lovers, to Refresh their Spirits, a.k.a. “Goldberg Variations” and it enters the catalogue as the first that employs a harpsichord tuning system thought – by its ‘re-inventor’ Bradley Lehman - to be the one that Bach used and preferred… all based on a little scribble that can be found on the manuscript of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Agree or not, it sounds and looks convincing in argument and it sounds convincing on record. (To read all about it - and far more than you probably wanted to know read the description and analysis of Lehman's in his essay for Oxford Early Music publication from February/May 2005 which you can access via this link.) The hues become occasionally softer, there are warmer harmonies. Not particularly noticeable in the Aria and generally not as noticable as I had hoped (or feared), you can hear how some keys and note relationships live in greater tension to each other. There is some 'bending' (but never that ‘out-of-tune’ feeling of natural tuning employed in some early baroque recordings) going on, but a radical step away from what we are used to this tuning system is not, which is, I guess, its point. And as such this recording not only can, but must be compared to other, 'regular' versions, just on the account of playing and interpretation.


Here Egarr impresses with feeling and a soft touch. In my opinion he outplays the fairly similar Céline Frisch on the alpha label, who also includes the 14 Goldberg canons (although for chamber group, not harpsichord like Egarr does) and the two songs on which the 31st variation, the Quodlibet is based. The alpha disc, a CHOC de Le Monde de la Musique 2001 and Diapason d'or 2002 winner, is highly interesting for that reason, but the Goldberg Variations themselves cannot stand out in a crowded field. On the mellow side, they compete directly with the ultimately more expressive Egarr. (The latter's complete accompanying essay - the liner notes only have excerpts - in .pdf form can be read here.)


Either Landowska recording – I prefer the RCA recording by a small margin over the earlier EMI but profess to not particularly liking either, no matter their iconic status – can’t quite compare to Egarr’s (or anyone else’s) just on sonic grounds alone, the copy of the 1638 Ruckers harpsichord caught in excellent, full sound by the Harmonia Mundi engineers. Landowska remains, as usual, in a category of her own. (Here are a few pictures of [copies of] Ruckers double manual harpsichords: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.)


For the same reasons that Gould (CBS/Sony, 1955) is more exciting than the honest, if pondering Tureck (DG, 1998) or the meticulous Rosen (Sony, 1992), Suzuki (BIS, 1997) is more exciting than his harpsichord rivals. He socks it to the Goldbergs; he is explosive at every note. (He also skips the repeats in the slow movements, adding to the overall 'fast' impression.) Is Suzuki full of tender detail and nuance like Egarr? No. Nor does it have the deeper reaching stalky rhythmic precision of sometimes maligned Keith Jarrett (ECM, 1994) that I’ve perversely grown to love (only) upon closer listening. Suzuki's beauty - or rather: fascination - is one of the surface and, call me shallow, that’s sometimes enough, even with a piece like the “GV.”


Pierre Hantaï sparkles in every note on his first recording on op.111 (1992), presents a woven carpet of bubbly sound. Most pleasing – also a surface-focused account (not to be mistaken for superficial). Hantaï’s more recent recording is on the Mirare label (2003), which has so far produced only winners. I don’t own it but have heard it once or twice. The superficial impression is a similar, slightly slower account, less straightforward as his on op.111 – with slightly better, deeper sound. What it did not strike me as, however, was the kind of revelation that Christophe Rousset’s Clavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann (Ambroise, 2005) presented in terms of sound of instrument and recording.


Among the lot, the choice would be difficult to make – although it is difficult not to be impressed by Suzuki and carried away by Hantaï. Jarrett is less obviously a top contender – but I found him to hold up against most of the competition because his rhythm, perhaps seemingly stiff at first, reveals itself to have spine and keeps the work fresh from the first note to the last, never allowing the tension or propulsion to sag. Egarr presses softer buttons altogether; those who look for sensitivity might find their match here.


Landowska famously responded to a piano playing critic of her Bach: “You play Bach your way, I play him his way.” [Almost, but not quite: See correction by A.C.Douglas in comment section. -jfl] That’s funny, still, if for different reasons. To think that Landowska’s Pleyel resembled a harpsichord from Bach’s time any more than a Steinway D is a stretch. Egarr, however, might just have a claim to this statement. Whether that is enough to merit the inclusion of this disc depends on the listener’s desire to hone in as closely as possible to what the original may have, ideally, sounded like... and his or her willingness to double and triple up on G-berg recordings. For me, this is not a first choice, but a most welcome, well and warmly played addition to the bulging shelf where I particularly cherish Suzuki (fast), Hantaï (sparkle), Jarrett ("The Stork") on harpischord - and Gould (required), Perahia (romantic - Sony) and, as of late, Lifschitz (as nimble as Gould with more interesting rhythm - in Denon's great sound) on piano.

Bach's 'Tuning Scribble' acc. Lehman
Go to the follow-up post on the Goldberg Variations.

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