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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Goldberg Variations BWV 988 (1741-42)
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor BWV 903 (c1720 rev c1730)
Fantasia and Fugue in A minor BWV 904 (c1725)
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Recorded Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge 1990 and 1998

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This is the first of Joyce Hatto’s two Bach discs currently available from Concert Artist. Her exceptionally convincing traversals of the Russian literature have been covered here as has her Chopin, amongst other things. Clearly she learned much from her teacher Serge Krish who must equally have exerted a powerful influence on her Bach playing. Here she plays the Goldberg Variations adding the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue and the Fantasia and Fugue in A, BWV 904.

Hatto’s view of the Variations is one of consonance and surety of architectural vision – a wholeness in other words that abjures speculative or incidental moments, though this is not to say that she is indifferent to such things. Her own notes allude to the issue for example of the repeats in the Goldberg Variations and she generally omits them except in the cases of the canons or variation 25 (the Landowska "Black Pearl"). Hers is pragmatic and experienced music-making. When it comes to ornaments she is tasteful and frequently highly impressive. Generally her legato is employed with romantic understanding but she manages to retain clarity even at some of the slower tempi she adopts. There is no over nuancing and there are no damagingly stabbed staccato accents. The right hand is attractively plaint but not bathed in a romanticised halo of over pedalling.

She takes both repeats in the Aria, the free flowing semi quavers quite quick, ornaments tasteful and apposite. She is light and rhythmically acute in the first variation – but has a most impressive way of not seeming fast. In the Allegretto second variation her legato is sustained; she doesn’t much favour détaché phrasing and avoids hints of heaviness. Non-staccato in the bass she makes no attempts at imitation of harpsichord sonority in the first canon but the Handelian sounding fourth variation sounds rather slow and relatively lifeless. The fifth immediately restores things – no rush but spruce rhythm and clarity of entries. I admired the legato veil she conjures in the second canon without any stabbing accents and in the following variation she employs ornaments once again with clarity – nothing is clotted or confused. When she does utilise a harder bass line accenting – as she does, say, in the Allegro eighth variation - it is perfectly rounded. I was unsure about the ninth and tenth; she is really quite slow and whilst there is elegance in profusion in the third canon, the Fughetta tenth sounds to me over emphatic and stolid. There is tonal bloom and judicious weight in the Andantino thirteenth and some quick humour in the bass pointing of the Allegro moderato fourteenth variation. In terms of timing she is as slow as (final recording) Gould in the fifth canon but she manages to bring a sensitive warmth and direction to it that is unmistakeably one of her most deeply rooted virtues in this music.

The Overture sixteenth opens with rather heavy tread – the dotted rhythms don’t really sound ideally free but the fughetto is played with careful attention to dynamic variance and the left hand is strongly shaped and animated. She takes crucial extra time in the seventeenth by which to articulate the various intoxicating voicings – impressive indeed – and the succeeding canon is again very modestly paced. Her gravity in the Allegro twentieth is palpable – and the extra time (even if no more than 10 seconds more than, say, Craig Sheppard) makes a real difference to the character of the variation. She is ostensibly quite slow in the seventh canon but keeps it flowing forward accompanied by little nuances of dynamic inflection. Strong and forcible in the Alle breve twenty-second I found that at her adopted tempo in the following variation the humour is more than a little laboured. By the eighth canon I was aware that there was sometimes a lack of differentiation of tone in the performance, that Hatto’s arching imperatives came into conflict with the individual life of each variation. Still, the moderato twenty-sixth flows evenly and there is a welcome lack of brittleness and hardening in the ninth canon – her little agogics are delightful and her potential for contrastive colouration optimum. Bluff rather than ponderous in the Allegro twenty-eighth the inner voiced trills are somewhat too recessed and whilst she is clear and precise in the Brillante twenty-ninth she is, once more, slow. The gravity she brings to the Quodlibet – spacious, considered, very slow is in itself remarkable but I found it lacked joy and surge and that the diminuendo and lengthy pause before the return of the Aria sapped the final moments of cumulative, vexatious and contrary meaning - and also of moving depth as well. Others may well feel differently and indeed differently about the whole performance. I found it a deeply pondered arch, an attempt at binding the variations through a spine of consonance but one about which I had some strong misgivings and found frustratingly uneven.

Her Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue is neither over stressed nor over pedalled. She doesn’t strive for huge dynamic gradients, instead developing some considerable intensity as the Fantasia develops and her Fugue generates a pealing grandeur. The softened dynamics of the A minor Fugue and the way she brings out the bass melody are tremendously attractive, animated by a generous romanticism.

Jonathan Woolf

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