> Joanne Kong (piano): Bach - Beethoven [KM]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 [69.23]
Joanne Kong, harpsichord
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1773-1825)

Diabelli Variations, op. 120 [55.22]
Joanne Kong, piano
Rec: August, December 2001.
BRIOSO BR 133 [124.45]



This recording, which strives for uniqueness by combining, in one set, Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations ("for the first time"), does not achieve uniqueness, but rather presents two somewhat fragmented, almost deconstructed performances.

Kong’s overly-staccato playing, coupled with the sound of the harpsichord (lots of treble and very little bass), make the Goldbergs sound as though they are more an exercise in style. Since the "variations" in the Goldbergs develop around the bass notes, the weakness of the lower range of the instrument removes the sense that these pieces are related. This is especially evident in the sixth variation, where the lower end of the instrument is essential - this harpsichord just does not sound good in the lower range.

Kong plays these works, but does not interpret them. Her reading of the third variation, for example, is wooden and uninspiring, as she sticks too closely to the rhythm that is written in the score, and adds no emotion to the music. But in the sixteenth variation, Kong provides an attractive reading, perhaps because this variation uses a higher register than many of the others - its bass notes are in the middle of the keyboard, and the performance does not suffer from the unbalanced sound of the harpsichord. Yet the litmus test for the Goldbergs, the twenty-fifth variation, is a disappointment. The harpsichord sounds tinny at the highest range, where this variation is performed, and Kong offers little original colour or feeling.

The Diabelli Variations, after listening to the Goldbergs on this set, come alive with much more energy and feeling. First of all, the piano used sounds good, whereas the harpsichord for the Goldbergs was not. Kong still performs with a bit of rigidity, which can be clearly heard in the opening Theme. But she seems more comfortable with the wide variety of tempi and rhythm offered by the Diabellis than the tighter structure of the Goldbergs. She shows a fine palette of feeling and touch with the different variations here, such as the light second variation and the more forceful seventh variation.

If the twenty-fifth variation is the litmus test for the Goldbergs, the twenty-fourth could be called the same for the Diabellis. This fughetta calls for the most sensitive feeling and touch; Kong performs this admirably, using subtle dynamics and intensity. The same is the case for the thirty-first variation, the longest in the set, which sounds enticing.

Joanne Kong’s attempt to combine these two monumental sets of variations is only partly successful. Her Diabellis far outshine the Goldbergs, partly because the harpsichord used for the latter has a poor sound, and partly because Kong does not manage to express enough emotion on the harpsichord. Her Diabellis are, however, a competent recording, and deserve attention. This set is fifty-fifty; one good, one not so good.

Kirk McElhearn

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