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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Aria with 30 Variations, BWV 988 “Goldberg Variations” (1741-42) [83:06]
Burkard Schliessmann (piano)
rec. 17-19 July 2007, Teldex Studio Berlin
BAYER RECORDS BR100326 [38:06 + 45:00]

 

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German pianist Burkard Schliessmann has been much admired for his recordings and performances of Chopin, and he has also made SACD recordings of Liszt, Godowsky and the like. He has been schooled at the master-classes of greats such as Herbert Seidel, Shura Cherkassky, Bruno Leonardo Gelber and Poldi Mildner. Many commentaries make comparisons with great names from the past such as Alfred Cortot and Artur Schnabel. He is regarded by some as one of the influential pianists of the modern era, and he has received numerous prizes and awards of merit for his interpretations. With a new recording of the “Goldberg Variations”, he puts himself in a direct firing line with comparisons of pianists from Glenn Gould, through Andras Schiff to Murray Perahia and beyond. 

The last new set of Goldbergs I looked at were by played by Andrea Bacchetti, and while I do not see his sometimes ornament-heavy recordings as in any way definitive I would gladly take his playing as being of a standard against which many can be judged. Bacchetti most certainly has a sense of the continuity of the variations as a single work, rather than as a set of grand miniatures – his virtually non-stop live performances stand as a witness to this. Re-visiting this Arthaus DVD/CD set as a valued part of my collection rekindles the respect I have for this kind of musicianship. Murray Perahia’s recording on Sony is one which will grab you every time for its playfulness and sheer virtuosity. I don’t have Andras Schiff’s more recent ECM recording of this work, but have long had his 1983 Decca recording high up on my desert-island shortlist. Schiff’s is not the most exciting of interpretations, but certainly fits the bill on dark, soulful nights. 

So to Burkard Schliessmann. It is a shame that his recording didn’t fit on one disc, but in the end this was to be the least of my concerns with this release. To be sure, the SACD piano sound is very good, with the pianist playing his own Steinway – the tuner of which, Georges Ammann, is also named. Schliessmann often makes his accents with ugly stabs however, and so the sound frequently hardens through no fault of the recording. Listen to Variation 16 at the beginning of disc 2, and, once you have, ask yourself if you want to hear it again. This variation also highlights another worry, which is Schliessmann’s hobbling approach to rhythm in this music. There is a great deal of ducking and diving – with the worst cases being snatchy anticipations which ruin whatever flow might have survived the dubious touché. Lumpy heaviness is also a trait in Variation 17, and Schliessmann seems to think it’s OK to accelerate in some of the downward moving passages. This is not a true rubato, as there is no ‘give’ to compensate for the ‘take’, and even if it is a hangover from the pianist’s affinity with romantic repertoire I wouldn’t buy it. The opposite is true of Variation 18, which seems to be losing steam all the way through. 

I happen to have started with disc 2 more or less at random, but in fact this was the point at which I lost patience and had to start writing. I always want to fall in love with a new “Goldberg”, and was in the mood to try and give the benefit of the doubt through disc 1. My doubt antennae had however already been alerted by a rhythmic anticipation 13 seconds into the opening Aria, a mannerism which rears again at 1:23 after a rather twixt-and-between ornament, so either it’s a twitch our pianist can’t avoid, or a choice in interpretation – neither of which bodes well. I don’t mind a masculine Variation 1, but the usual evenness of that running figuration almost seems to turn into triplets to my ears, a characteristic which recurs time and again. Variation 2, and there is some amateurish rushing between phrases which is rather unnerving – not really extreme, but if the intention is to build excitement then the effect is lost on me. I don’t feel rhythm is a strong point in any of these variations, and while I don’t subscribe to any kind of ramrod stiffness when it comes to Bach on the piano, I do dislike intensely the kind of wandering tempi to be found in many of these movements. There is a lack of legato playing which makes many of the variations sound rather similar, and where there are pointillist touches such as those in Variation 5, Schliessmann pokes at them as if he were stabbing at something unpleasant with a long stick. This variation also starts out with brisker intentions than it ends, and shows up some further vagueness in the pianist’s approach to ornamentation. Variation 6 is just a big pile of notes which do nothing for anyone. I could go on, but depression is beginning to set in. Oh yes, the horrible mannerism of those little skyrockets in Variation 7, they reminded me of the call of those white cockatoos in Mittagong...

Though not clearly marked as such, this SACD release is of course a hybrid, and will play on normal CD players – the ubiquitous ‘compact disc’ logo in fact giving this away to the observant shopper. The double disc timing is not the result of profound slowness in the playing of the ‘slow’ variations, although the adagio variation no. 25 does come in at just under 10 lugubrious minutes, compared for instance to Bacchetti’s 8:19. The longer timing is more the result of a steadfast and stodgy choice of unexciting tempi in the more usually ‘fast’ pieces.

I know I’ve been mean and horrible about this recording, but as the late great Sebastian Bell once said, “if you smell like a polecat, then I’m going to say you smell like a polecat...”, by which he meant he would be honest about what he heard in our playing as students. Having had my traditional cooling off period and giving the thing another good listen, my views remain unchanged. Taking everything into consideration I really can’t see the point of this release, and reading Burkard Schliessmann’s well written booklet notes and the publisher’s own paean of praise which follows, I find it hard to square the awkward and ungainly peg which is supposed to slide gracefully into Bach’s infinitely fascinating hole. Listening to a recent Claves box set which includes some marvellous Bach played by Michael Studer shows how it can be done, and one can only regret that there is no Studer ‘Goldberg Variations.’ Schliessmann’s own text states that “the Goldberg Variations have always enjoyed a special status, with pianists regarding them as a touchstone of their technical and interpretative powers.” The same might be said by climbers of a mountain like Everest, but that is not to say that either great phenomenon is enhanced by the litter-strewn attempts to scale their heights. With regard to Burkard Schliessmann, my own experience suggests to me that this is a romantic music specialist who, in truth, finds the purity of Bach far more challenging than the bravura technical demands of the music of later centuries.

Dominy Clements                  

 


 


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