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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Tianqi Du (piano)
rec. 2018, Domaine Forget, Charlevoix, Saint-Irénée, Québec, Canada
NAÏVE V7566 [2 CDs: 88]

My recent brush with the reissue of Burkard Schliessmann’s Goldberg Variations was not a happy one; undeterred, I requested this latest studio recording by young rising star Tianqi Du to see how he tackles this monument of the keyboard repertoire.

Let me first get two things out of the way. The overall timing is notably on the slow side; for me, this is neither here nor there, in that in my survey of this work, while my preference and recommendations inclined towards brisker interpretations centring around the 80-minute mark, I also, found time to praise versions (with the repeats) which spilled over onto two discs, such as that by Evgeni Koroliev at 85 minutes. Nonetheless, this latest offering is certainly among the slowest.

Secondly, it would be remiss of me not to warn prospective punters that our Chinese virtuoso is of the Glenn Gould school singalong fraternity. That regrettable habit is obviously more noticeable on headphones, but it is there and that might be a dealbreaker for the fastidious. While I am habituated to Gould’s vocalise, I cannot help observing that in these days of hyper-sensitive digital engineering and equally unforgiving listeners who have scores of recordings from which to choose, it might be advisable for an artist and his producer to curb that tendency. It signals deep involvement on the performer’s part but also smacks of self-indulgence. (I should add that the vocal obbligato starts to become barely perceptible in the second variation and is only intermittently apparent throughout; its most egregious manifestations are in Variations IV, VII, IX, X and rather absurdly throughout Variation XVI which begins the second disc.)

That caveat notwithstanding, this is lovely playing, tastefully articulated, delicately ornamented in the repeats without artifice and redolent of a certain patrician serenity. Some may indeed find Du’s leisurely restraint lacking in fire but his singing tone, silken legato and eloquent phrasing are a joy. The sheer beauty of his playing frequently captivates the listener, as in the pearlescent runs of Variation V – and I like his left-hand bass line, which is nicely prominent without being obtrusive. He injects a “country air” of the musette into Variation VII which is very reminiscent of Rameau - but also unfortunately mildly marred by his vocal contribution, as per above. As with Koroliev, the slower tempi generally do not drag when runs are executed with such limpid musicality but there are some resultant deficits in contrast and energy; just a little more bravura in numbers such as the madcap Variation XIV or the helter-skelter, headlong rush of no. XX would be welcome. That lack of variety does not exactly present any risk of boredom – that could never be the case with such music, so beautifully played – but it nonetheless constitutes a comparative weakness alongside the very best renditions. The ‘Black Pearl’ (Variation XXV) is one of the slowest on record, similar to that of Vladimir Feltsman and the aforementioned Koroliev, but I describe Feltsman’s more whimsical, mercurial version as “musicianship on the highest plain” and Koroliev’s as “wonderfully expansive and Romantic” whereas here Du’s account comes across here as oddly flat, halting and prosaic, lacking in that indefinable “soul” and profundity of the two Muscovite Russians’ delivery. The rippling runs of the ensuing Variation XXVI, the tintinnabulations of no. XXVIII and the pyrotechnics of XXIX are, however, all brilliantly executed and again, the sonority of the bass line throughout is deeply satisfying. On the “return to base” with the serene concluding aria, the listener might feel that the journey has been worthwhile but has not quite opened up the all-encompassing panoply of vistas some interpreters provide.

If I do not say much about the sound here, that is because it is perfect; beautifully balanced and resonant without glare.

Tianqi Du had only just turned 26 when he recorded this release, an age which might be considered premature for a pianist to attempt “scaling Mount Everest” (as Du characterises the challenge in his note), but both Gould in 1955 and Beatrice Rana were several years younger when they recorded their versions, which are among my favourites. Nevertheless, I cannot help thinking that he might have left his concept of this music to ripen a while yet.

Ralph Moore

Published: November 2, 2022

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