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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations (pub. 1741)
Andras Schiff (piano)
A concert recording on 30 October 2001 at the Stadtcasino, Basel, Switzerland.
ECM NEW SERIES 1825; 472 185-2 [71'04"]


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Andras Schiff has an excellent reputation as a Bach pianist, his interpretation of "The 48" having been a staple ingredient of the catalogue for 20 years. I therefore looked forward to more pleasure from his interpretation of the Goldberg Variations. Alas, this performance left me cold and disappointed. So, why such a difference? The main reason is the very fast speed adopted, particularly as, quite rightly, he chooses to use each repeat. The overall impression is unfortunately one of being "thrown off" with virtuosity; not that there is any argument about the quality of his pianistic abilities which are beyond criticism. This performance is the most rapid on the discs of which I have compared, taking 71 minutes in total. The rapid variations are very rapid and the slower variations are fast.

I have very fond memories of seeing and hearing the late Rosalyn Tureck at a performance in the Barber Institute in Birmingham in 1956-7, just before her recording of this work for HMV (now re-issued on Philips 456 979-2PM2). The atmosphere was electric, for one could have heard a pin drop in the hour and a half of music, with an interval midway. That concert has coloured my opinion of these performances, but even so, I admire other artists. The Philips recording is still available on two discs, the whole taking 95'17", although the piano sound is beginning to sound dated and a bit "plummy". A more modern version by the same artiste is available in a "Plus-core" edition from Deutsche Grammophon on 459 599-2GH2; here one can still enjoy the performance but also access the score and print and play it! Considering this is 41 years later, the technique is remarkable, the interpretation little changed, and the timing is only 4 minutes shorter.

To give but one example of the differences, I have chosen Variation 29 (the one just before the Quodlibet and which is one of the more virtuosic). Schiff throws this off in 1'46", Tureck (1957) in 2'12" and Tureck (1998) in 2'05". Other respected performers are Glenn Gould (1981) (Sony SMK52619) who takes 1'02" (but without repeats), Angela Hewitt, 2'18" (Hyperion CDA67305), and Murray Perahia, 2'10" (Sony SK89243). In the whole work the timings are Glenn Gould 51'15" (no repeats), Angela Hewitt 78'32", and Murray Perahia 73'29". As a final caveat: Helmut Walcha on harpsichord (EMI) takes 75'14", with variation 29 taking 2'12".

These are only examples to illustrate my initial comments; the technique is excellent and the recording faithful and true throughout. The programme notes are by Schiff himself, and well explain the work, particularly as to why the well-known story of Goldberg's playing to Count Keyserlingk was very unlikely to have occurred.

I fully admit that these observations are from my own preference, but it all depends on how you like your Goldbergs - the yolk runny or more well done.

John Portwood

see also review by Paul Shoemaker



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