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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations (BWV 988)

Lajos Rovatkay, harpsichord (Rainer Schütze, 1976, after Blanchet, 1737)
Recorded June 2001. DDD
QUERSTAND VKJK 0314 [78:32]

Comparison: Pierre Hantaï (Mirare, 2003)

The Goldberg Variations never cease to intrigue scholars, musicians and audiences alike. Many harpsichordists seem to consider this long work the ultimate challenge. That is reflected by the large number of recordings available. That number continues to grow every year.

One wonders what all the fuss is about. There are more variation works in music history, both before and after Bach. What makes this set of variations so special? In his liner notes, Lajos Rovatkay characterises the Goldberg Variations as a 'Tower of Babel'. "The abundance included in a single harmonic framework and the organisation of the musical figures appears as the complete vision of an ideal universe of musical art, as apotheosis of the sensual-spiritual area of conflict and the tonal material that was used as his basis".

There is no reason to deny the inner coherence of the Goldberg Variations and their rooting in the rhetorical tradition and the connection to medieval musical thinking, as Rovatkay writes elsewhere. But at the same time one shouldn't exaggerate this aspect. Two factors could bring us down to earth again.

First of all, there is reason to believe that the first version of the Goldberg Variations consisted of the first 24 variations only, preceded and followed by the Aria. It is in this form that they were probably written for Count Keyserlingk, who wanted them to be played by his harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, during his many sleepless nights.

Did Bach have its present concept in mind right from the start or only when he prepared the work for publication in 1741?

Secondly, the fact that Keyserlingk asked Goldberg during sleepless nights to play "one of my variations" proves that these can stand on their own feet, out of their context.

Special attention has been given to the Quodlibet (Variation 30). Rovatkay writes: "The two associated texts provide, so to speak, a latent dialogue between the bass framework and the so long put off 'Aria' upper voice (...). The re-unification of the two partners is completed with the closing return of the 'Aria'. (...) the reappearance of the 'Aria' is the fulfillment of a multiple geometric proportions structure (music as 'mathematical science' of the medieval 'Quadrivium') and at the same time the enlightening closure of contents expressed by the concept (music as a rhetorical-emotional communicating art of the humanistic 'Trivium')."

The view that the two songs in the Quodlibet symbolise the return of the Aria is not uncommon. But most scholars believe that this Quodlibet also refers to the habit of members of the Bach family to sing popular songs at their family meetings, and that Bach was even "poking fun at his own contrapuntal inclinations" (John Butt, in the Oxford Composers Companions’ volume devoted to Bach).

This humorous aspect is characterised by Rovatkay as a "superficial view". It seems this way of thinking left its mark on his interpretation of the Goldberg Variations as a whole, which is deprived of all joy and exuberance. I didn't find it very easy to listen to this recording at a stretch. One of the features of this work is the great variety in character between the individual variations. That hardly comes across in this performance. There is great uniformity in tempo: some variations are too slow, others too fast. The interpretation as a whole is pretty rigid and ponderous.

Let me give some examples to illustrate this. Variation 4 is a passepied. Rovatkay's playing never makes the listener realise that this is a vivid and playful dance. How different is the way Pierre Hantaï treats this Variation!

Due to the lack of differentation in Rovatkay's playing the rhythmic accents in Variation 5 are hardly noticeable.

According to Bach's contemporary, Johann Mattheson, a canarie should be played "sehr geschwinde" (very fast) and "kurtz" (which means that the notes shouldn't always get their full weight). That is exactly how Hantaï is playing Variation 7, but nothing of the sort is realised by Rovatkay.

The Goldberg Variations in its present form consists of two halves. The second half begins with Variation 16, a French overture in two contrasting sections: the first stately and majestic, the second fast. In Rovatkay's interpretation these two sections are not contrasting enough. The tempo of the first section is alright, but the second section is too slow.

Generally there is little variety in the way Rovatkay plays these variations. There is also very little ornamentation, not even in the repeats.

This interpretation by Lajos Rovatkay doesn’t seem to me an interesting addition to the long list of recordings already available.

Johan van Veen


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