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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations
Barbara Harbach (harpsichord)
Recorded c.1990
GASPARO GG 1018 [67.06]

For her recording made in c.1990 Barbara Harbach uses a two manual French double model harpsichord made by Willard Martin in 1987. The recording gets up quite close but not unattractively so – and not overbearingly. There is certainly enough natural ambience to cushion the sound. There are a number of noteworthy features in her performance. The Aria, with repeats, is taken slower than one might expect, which is fine by me, as are her tasteful ornaments especially after the second repeat, though one or two of her agogics do draw attention to themselves on repeated listening. I liked the very slight heaviness of Variation 1, though the left hand is rather italicised in the first Canon at a relatively slow-ish speed. The Fifth flows delightfully, even fingerwork combined with great fluency, even if her Seventh is a bit skittish and whilst attempting to force the wit tends to sound sticky.

I admired the Canone all Quarta, which is subtly imaginative and in many ways she seems to locative the emotive heart of the work in the Thirteenth Variation, taken at a delicate and sedate tempo, along with feathery articulation. There are times when I felt her dotted rhythms (as in the Overture No. 16) could be more forthright but her variation and contrasting of registers and her general sharp sighted intelligence sees her through. She keeps the Seventh Canon on the move and her Alle Breve Twenty Second Variation is sinewy and strong. About Landowska’s so-called Black Pearl Twenty-Fifth I think Harbach has mixed feelings. She certainly plays it with a mixture of briskness and brusqueness that makes one think she’s out to make a point. I’m not sure if I’m right to think that Harbach sees an analogue with the Thirteenth here but her playing is so aloof and emotively remote that she might well – and she values the Thirteenth much higher as a statement of intensity and compression of feeling. No. 28 has good inner trills and a bracing tempo but 29 is not quite exultant enough (and too halting in articulation). Her Quodlibet, with its ornaments, is strangely unexulatant and withdrawn. I’m not sure if she’s preparing for the return of the Aria by downplaying the more joyous elements of it but the effect is muted, which is a pity, as is the clipping of the first part of the Aria da capo.

This thoughtful performance won’t challenge those who hold strong allegiance to such established front-runners in the catalogue as Pinnock. Nevertheless there are things about it that have given me pause for constructive and serious thought.

Jonathan Woolf


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