Bach's Goldberg Variations, best known on the
harpsichord and piano, have been played on a number of other instruments.
There are versions for organ and for string trio. József Eötvös
takes a perilous leap and presents his own arrangement of the work for
guitar. One cannot expect that this will sound the same as on a keyboard
instrument; the range is different, the attack and decay distinct from
those for any keyboard instrument. Eötvös does not attempt
to play a transcription of the work; his is an arrangement, adapted
to the specificities of his instrument.
Where Eötvös's performance is most problematic
is in its tempi. He plays some variations far too slowly. The third
variation is one example. He plays this at about half the tempo usually
adopted by keyboard players. While this helps bring out the musical
lines more clearly than a faster tempo could, it detracts from the overall
movement of a work that depends as much on its music as it does on the
relationships between the different variations. This effect can be a
bit jarring, when moving from one variation at a "normal" tempo to a
much slower one, such as when he passes from the 7th to the 8th variation.
The same occurs with the transition from the 13th to 14th variations.
The latter is far too slow, and lacks character. But when it works,
it works very, very well. Eötvös has an excellent touch and
beautiful sound. With his fingers playing this music, one could almost
think that it was indeed written for guitar. He does not make it sound
like an adaptation at all. His choices in the arrangement make perfect
sense. The opening aria flows perfectly with a curve that fluidly carries
through from beginning to end. His slightly staccato playing of the
sixth variation shows that his arrangement can fit the tone and feeling
of the work perfectly.
Eötvös is best in the more lyrical sections,
such as the 13th, 21st and 25th variations. The legato and decay of
the guitar are especially suited for this type of piece. The 25th variation
is especially attractive, and Eötvös plays at a tempo that
fits both the music and the instrument.
I have one reservation about the recording itself.
The excess reverberation added in the recording process is unnecessary
and mars the music at times. I would like to hear the guitar, not some
approximation of the room it is played in. The guitar is an intimate
instrument, and I want to hear how it sounds if I am sitting right in
front of it.
But all in all, this is a brilliant recording, bringing
the true spirit of the Goldberg Variations to a more compact instrument;
compact in size, but also in range and in contrapuntal possibilities.
While I have reservations about the tempi of some of the variations,
the music itself is excellent, and Eötvös plays it with fine
technique and style.