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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
József Eötvös, guitar
Rec: 1997, Akzent, Bratislava.
Self-published EJ-01WZ [62.48]


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.

Kirk McElhearn

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