Monday, May 29, 2006

More Goldberg fun.

I recently got a couple of new recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations. The first came out a year or two after Gould's phenomenal 1981 recording for Columbia. I cannot help but think that comparison hurt Andras Schiff's record. The usual epithets thrown against Schiff are that he is a bit too mannered and slightly fussy. I liken this situation to that which confronts the serious listener of Bach's Cello Suites: on one hand, you have the reserved and "correct" Pierre Fournier, the deeply personal Pablo Casals, and - in the middle - you have Paul Tortelier. One finds Gould II (III, if you count Salzburg) at one end, any of the HIP harpsichord recordings at the other, and Schiff in between. That is to say that Schiff indulges in somewhat more of the grandeur and ornamentation of the music. The laser-beam clarity and emphasis on counterpoint and architecture that one finds in Gould (especially Salzburg) are somewhat diminished in Schiff; however, they are replaced by a sense of play and style that Gould's spare, stripped-down versions could be said to lack.

Pierre Hantaï recorded the Goldbergs for Opus 111 ten or fifteen years ago, and returned to them recently. His harpsichord recording makes the attractiveness and splendor of the Variations obvious. It is somewhat more difficult to see the internal architecture of the piece when performed on a harpsichord, and that was probably Bach's intent. They were, by Bach's admission, written as enjoyable pieces - and I think that hearing them in all their Baroque ornament makes their enjoyability clear. Hantaï has a reflective quality, but not so much so that it makes the pieces the glorified Pachelbel Canons that some would have them become. These are interesting, even if one still prefers a good piano recording of them.

I will still stick with Gould's Mozarteum performance from the 1959 Salzburger Festspiele. The ORF sound is passable, but the performance would be magical even were it on decayed Berlin RF Magnetophon tapes. One sees Gould in transit between the wild 1955 record and the reserved, somber 1981 disc. It still has the best of both worlds, even if it is closer to one than the other.


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