> BACH Goldberg Becker [PQ]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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J.S. BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Markus Becker (piano)
Recorded October 2000
CPO 999 831-2 [78'04"]


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A booklet note entitled ‘Play it again, John; or, Sleepless in Dresden’ (don’t you love that ‘or’; truly, the writer’s cup brimmeth over) clearly has something to prove. In this case, I wonder if CPO’s booklet editor actually read Eckhardt van den Hoogen’s respectable and utterly uncontroversial essay on the Goldberg Variations, for his bright idea(s) for a title is the only remotely eccentric characteristic of this whole production. If his playing is any guide to his personality, Markus Becker would think it de trop (I’d agree with him). Born in 1963, he has accumulated a discography which includes the complete piano works of Max Reger on twelve CDs (that this is significant may soon become apparent) and he teaches at the Hanover Academy of Music.

Ugliness is completely absent from his tone – indeed, he displays a remarkably smooth touch. If anything, the Achilles' Heel of this performance is its sheer evenness. I can’t recall the Goldbergs played with so little, well, variation, of colour, of tempo, of dynamic. I waited for the fearsome hand-crossing of Variation 6, thinking that here at least he would put what is evidently a formidable technique to virtuosic disportment – but no. Trills in fugetta are marvellously even, never get in the way of the elaboration of the counterpoint, and Becker is not so rigid that he can’t allow himself rhetorical rallentandos at the close of several variations.

It’s possible to marvel at his thoughtfulness in treating the variations as a gradually evolving exploration of the theme, rather than as a supremely accomplished compilation of dance forms around a common idea. I’m delighted to discover that the whole work can be played at broadly the same tempo without making any single variation rushed or turgid – but I’d rather not be left with this discovery as my abiding memory of the performance. In itself the first approach attracts me more, but Becker’s execution of it constantly left me wanting more – more sparkle, more joie de vivre and less conscientiousness in his balance of the hands. I’m not sure I’d want anyone to ape Yudina in her crazy quadrille through Variation 17, but at the other extreme, Becker is plain ploddy.

He uses the Canon at the fourth – variation 12 – as the first clearing of calm, but by pacing it at half speed, his grand scheme of integrity is intact. He allows himself more liberty only with the two expression markings that Bach explicitly indicates – the Andante of Variation 15 and the ‘Black Pearl’ Adagio of 25. These are touchingly, simply done without sentimentality, though the pedal, used elsewhere with discretion, is often obtrusive at phrase endings: partly due to the recording, which is as transparent as Becker’s playing. The consequence of this relentlessly pursued clarity of musical diction is apparent with the last variation. ‘Cabbages and turnips’ has none of its usual wistfulness gained from finding it like an old friend at the end of a journey, familiar yet still unexpected. The aria is no culmination, but a restful turn full circle. In sum, your admiration may be quickly won: affection is likely to be more stubborn in showing itself.
Peter Quantrill


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