> Bach - Goldberg Variations [KM]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Gustav Leonhardt, harpsichord
Rec: June 1953, Konzerthaus, Vienna.
VANGUARD OVC 2004 [54.19]

Gustav Leonhardt has made several recordings of the Goldberg Variations, spanning the several decades of his long, illustrious career. This recording, made in 1953, was his first, and marks a special point in the history of "authentic" performances of baroque music.

Limited by the constraints of fitting the entire set of variations on one CD, Leonhardt cuts out the repeats, yet plays many of these variations at tempi far slower than most performers, and slower than his later recordings. Actually, the opening aria sounds very un-Bachish in this recording, and the first variation surprises by its slow tempo. Yet one must remember that there were few recordings of the Goldberg Variations on any instrument at the time this album was released.

It gets better as it goes on, and the fifth variation, for example, bubbles with energy, as does the eighth. Some of the faster variations sound quite good, and the slow, introspective 25th variation is excellent as well. Yet these tempi show a lack of unity in the overall vision of the work, a unity that Leonhardt developed in his later recordings.

Overall, this is far from Leonhardts finest recording of the Goldbergs. His later recordings, such as that on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, are far better. Here, he was a young harpsichordist playing boldly and inaugurating a new era. Kudos go to Leonhardt for his efforts in bringing Bach into the 20th century and restoring a great deal of his music to a much closer approximation of the way it was intended to be heard.

Yet one key element mars this recording: the sound of the harpsichord is so tinny, so lacking in depth and relief that it is difficult to listen to. Part of this is because of the recording techniques of the 1950s, but part is simply that the instrument was not that good. A great deal of progress has been made since, and one no longer hears this type of sound.

This recording has historical interest, since it was the first Goldberg Variations on harpsichord of the "modern era", yet Leonhardt is far from his prime, and the sound of the harpsichord is relatively disappointing. A disc for collectors of historical recordings, perhaps, but not for casual listeners.

Kirk McElhearn

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