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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 -1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (1741) [70.55]
András Schiff, piano
Recorded Live at Stadtcasino, Basel, Switzerland, 30 October 2001.
Notes in English and Français. Photo of the performer and musical examples.
ECM NEW SERIES 1825 [70.55]

Comparison Recordings:
Andras Schiff: Bach, English Suites. Decca 421 640-2
Andras Schiff: Goldberg Variations. Decca 417 116-2 & 460 611-2
Glenn Gould, Goldberg Variations. [ADD 1956] Sony MYK 38479
Glenn Gould, Goldberg Variations. [ADD 1981] Sony 87703
Glenn Gould, Goldberg Variations. [DDD 1981] Sony MK 37779 and SS 37779
Fernando Valenti, Goldberg Variations, harpsichord. Sine Qua Non 79045-2
Murray Perahia, Goldberg Variations. Sony SACD SS 89243
D. Sitkovetsky, Goldberg Variations, String Trio. Orfeo 138851

András Schiff began his musical conquest of Glenn Gould’s Bach reputation by attacking him first where he was weak. Most critics agreed that Gould’s English Suites were his least distinguished Bach recording, and Schiff’s English Suites have been the standard of pianoforte excellence in this work for a number of years now. Having won that one, Schiff now attacks where Gould was strongest, in the Goldberg variations, among Gould’s most acclaimed recording(s). And he beats, or at least equals, him here also, thereby gaining entrée to space on top of the tallest column in the Bach district of Parnassus, a space he must share with Murray Perahia as well as with Glenn Gould*. Particularly Schiff has shown he can use pianoforte staccato with just as much variety and expressive facility as Gould, something that Perahia did not try to prove, although I suspect in a tournament he is certainly capable of distinguishing himself on that point also.

I heard Glenn Gould play the Goldberg Variations in concert twice, on one occasion which was his final public appearance, and on another occasion which his official biography insists never occurred. In addition to the two commercial recording there is also a Canadian Broadcasting CD special of Gould playing some of the Goldbergs in Moscow. All performances were quite different. And of course there you have the point; among the reliable distinguishing characteristics of true genius is the impatience with ever doing the same thing twice. The total number of possible interpretations of this masterpiece is infinity squared, and no two recordings by talented and conscientious musicians will be the same. (I heard once a recording by an East European harpsichordist of a work [not the Goldbergs] recently recorded by an American harpsichordist. The Eastern recording was a perfect imitation, proving that one musician can play just like another, if desired. Is this something we wanted to know?)

Schiff very creatively ornaments the repeats in these variations, and I think he even adds a few extra repeats to give himself more chances to have fun, considering that this does not sound like a slow recording yet is twice as long as Gould’s recording. He observes (as I do) the principle that an ornament, expected, but not performed, is in itself an ornament, a "surprise." That may prove to be the first statement in the new science of quantum musicology. (If carried further, this science should establish that the smallest unit of musical intelligence should be named the "critic." A million times this much would naturally be the megacritic, or colloquially perhaps the "Shaw," the "Tovey," or the "Porter." Paradoxically, "hypercritical" critics often have less than a micro-critic worth of musical intelligence. But you see, Bach is frequently described as a "mathematical" composer, so these ideas must naturally arise.)

Sorry for the bad news. How many magnificent recordings of this supreme work must there be? Like the Buddhist infinitely petalled lotus the flower keeps blooming forever becoming ever more magnificent without limit. Will there ever be a time when one looks at a sunset and says, "oh, that one again." One can hear Captain Kirk privately lamenting: "Oh, no, not yet another new world where no one has ever gone before!" And, in addition to the keyboard versions, Sitkovetsky’s string trio version is extremely dangerous; don’t listen to it, not even a small part of it, or you’ll have to have that one, too. [I haven’t heard, and don’t intend to hear, Sitkovetsky’s later string orchestra version. Nor, regrettably, have I had the chance to hear Schiff’s earlier piano version of the Goldbergs on Decca.] The Valenti recording was made very late in his career after he had switched to a "politically correct" harpsichord and largely abandoned his early flamboyant style; however, enough of the old fire remains to make this version worthwhile — also.

*and probably with the ghost of Donald Francis Tovey, who first performed publicly the "unplayable" work but, alas, never recorded his interpretation, or, I should say, any of his interpretations.

Paul Shoemaker


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