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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 [70:51]
Encore: "Jesu bleibet meine Freude" from Cantata BWV 147 [3:36]
Tatiana Nikolayeva, piano
Recorded Live at Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus, Denmark, April 1983


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Goldberg Variations Comparison

Nikolayeva/Hyperion (rec. 1992 - 79:38)

The legendary Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva (1924-1993) is best known for her performances of the Bach, Beethoven, and Shostakovich keyboard works. In fact, she was responsible for Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 being accepted for publication by the Russian Ministry of Culture. A champion for the music of Bach and Shostakovich, Nikolayeva also frequently performed piano music of the Romantic era as well as modern Russian music. That she had time for frequent concertizing throughout the world and teaching at the Moscow Conservatory is remarkable given that she had a son to raise on her own and also took full-time responsibility for her younger brother who had Downs Syndrome. Nikolayeva's life is a testament to fortitude, loyalty and high art; the world of classical music is surely diminished through her absence. Perhaps her greatest legacy is her three recordings of the Shostakovich Opus 87 Preludes and Fugues where she is the undisputed master of this body of music.

The genesis of the CLASSICO recording derives from the master classes Nikolayeva held in April 1983 at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus. On the final day of classes, she gave a concert playing the Goldberg Variations and an encore from a chorale of BWV 147. It is reported that the 'standing room only' audience was totally captivated by the concert, but copyright and other issues dictated that a recording of the event not be released. However, a former student of Nikolayeva named Sergei Senkov knew and talked to Nikolayeva's son who finally agreed to the release of the performance.

As noted above in the heading, Nikolayeva already has a Goldberg Variations recording that she made for Hyperion just one year before her death. It is a fine set of performances, but can safely be retired in favor of the 1983 live interpretation. In the live performance, Nikolayeva is more vibrant and displays greater technical command. Her frequent changes in tempo and dynamics sound perfectly natural while the 1992 performance has a contrived and somewhat choppy demeanor. Concerning sound quality, the Hyperion studio recording is rather constricted compared to the wide-ranging Classico soundstage. However, I should add that the ClassicO sound can get a bit brittle and unpleasant in the higher registers.

'Insistent' is the word that comes to mind each time I listen to Nikolayeva's Goldberg Variations, and some might feel that she hectors her listeners. Nikolayeva rarely sounds at peace, always ready to pounce on phrases. Yet, she makes it work in a convincing manner through her intuitive musicality.

I generally find that the most rewarding performances of a frequently recorded work are out of the mainstream yet make me feel that the work should be played no other way. That sums up my views of Nikolayeva's interpretations. Although she often is hard when I expect to be nourished, the results are so natural that I temporarily switch my emotional preferences.

Here are some further comments I noted while listening:

Opening Aria - Although I've mentioned the pointed insistence of Nikolayeva's overall performance, you won't get any of it in her Aria. She is totally comforting and warm, enveloping humankind within her outstretched arms. I do suggest readers luxuriate in Nikolayeva's security, because there isn't much more of it as the performance advances.

Exuberance - Nikolayeva is not particularly noted for her exuberance, but she does a splendid job of it in the Goldberg Variations. Although slowish in the fast and exciting variations, she makes up for it through highly demonstrative readings with pin-point articulation such as in the 1st and 3rd Variations.

Dialogue - Highlighting the musical lines and conversational properties of a work is one of the reasons Nikolayeva is a treasured artist, and she does not disappoint in her 1983 performance. This feature is most compelling in the 6th Variation with its continuous up-down rhythmic patterns from both the upper and lower voices. In addition to the delicious dialogue, Nikolayeva employs frequent tempo changes that expand the emotional palette of the piece.

Despair - A review of a recording of the Goldberg Variations is not complete without commentary on how well the pianist conveys the human despair of Variations 15, 21, and 25 (Black Pearl). These are Nikolayeva's most compelling interpretations and almost painful to listen to. In the "Black Pearl" Variation, her stark and desolate environment is a 'black hole' portraying the abyss of the soul.

Encore - Nikolayeva plays the chorale from the Cantata BWV 147 excellently, but I feel that the original version is superior for its vocal contributions. Overall, the inclusion of the encore is not a significant factor in deciding whether or not to acquire the disc.

In conclusion, anyone interested in Tatiana Nikolayeva's way with the Goldberg Variations is urged to acquire the live 1983 performance. It is one of the more rewarding piano versions on the market and much preferred to the 1992 studio performance on Hyperion. I also urge readers to investigate other Nikolayeva recordings including her Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle on Olympia and the two recordings currently available (Hyperion and Regis) of her interpretations of the Shostakovich Opus 87 Preludes and Fugues.

Don Satz

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