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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Pierre Hantaï, harpsichord
Recorded at Doopgezindekerk de Haarlem (Pays-Bas), 2003
MIRARE MIR 9945 [78:40]


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Comparison Version: Hantaï (Opus 111/Naïve)

In 1993 Pierre Hantaï recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations for Opus 111, now reissued on the Naïve label - review. The performance was outstanding and garnered a great deal of praise and awards. After a break of a little more than ten years, Hantaï gives us his second recording of Bach’s monumental set of variations.

Classical music enthusiasts often question the need for dozens of versions of one piece of music, and the skepticism concerning multiple versions from the same performing artist is equally strong. Therefore, the immediate issue with the new Hantaï disc is whether he has anything new to say about the Goldberg Variations. From this reviewer’s perspective, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

Hantaï’s 1993 performance is a treasure for its joy and vitality delivered in a highly fluid manner. In the new interpretation, Hantaï is less exuberant with a bittersweet element now conveyed in the Aria and many of the variations. The readings are darker and richer in emotional content, as he explores phrases and motifs with a sense of improvisation. Pacing tends to be slower than in the earlier recording, and contours are much sharper. Further, he uses more rhythmic hesitations and tempo changes than before.

The above considerations do not necessarily add up to a declaration that the new recording surpasses the earlier one. The two interpretations are simply different in conception and equally compelling. I would hate to be without the unbridled joy and lift of the 1993 performance, and the new one is essential for its greater breadth of emotional content and stronger rhythmic stretching achieved through incisive accenting and inflections. The constants in both performances are a complete service to Bach’s soundworld and a consistency of excellence rarely encountered in alternative recordings.

Here are a few highlights that I feel best indicate the distinctions between the two Hantaï recordings:

Aria – Significant differences surface immediately in the opening Aria. The earlier version lasts slightly over 4 minutes, while the new one takes almost five minutes. Hantaï ‘93’ is comforting and optimistic; Hantaï ‘2003’ is bittersweet to the core and rich in emotional layering.

Variations 3 through 8 – Hantaï is positively radiant and bubbling with enthusiasm in the earlier recording, but the new one finds him tempering the bubbling effect with emotional themes of less joyous magnitude. Both approaches are irresistible.

Variation 9 – Hantaï goes from spiritually uplifting in ‘93’ to a slower tempo with hesitations conveying a personality of nagging doubts, an interpretation that is darker and emotionally richer than the earlier one.

Variations 13 and 15 – The new version has the clear advantage. An improvisatory presentation makes the dialogue more spontaneous and realistic in Variation 13, and Hantaï now offers layers of dark emotional content in Variation 15 that contrast more effectively with the one radiant passage found in the second section.

Variation 16 – I have to make special mention of the new Hantaï performance. This is the Overture with its heroic double-dotted rhythms followed by an invigorating fugue. Hantaï drenches the music with sharply pungent phrasing, and his fugue is a whirlwind of powerful and detailed activity. The performance might well be the best on record, and it is certainly the sharpest and most compelling interpretation I’ve ever heard.

Variation 28 – Both Hantaï accounts are excellent examples of his fantastic virtuosity, precision, and expressiveness. The finger work and articulation are simply amazing.

In summary, the new Hantaï recording of the Goldberg Variations is amongst the best on record. The increased maturity of his interpretation over the 1993 recording is apparent in the richer and more diverse emotional palette, improvisatory presentation and variety of tempos and rhythms. This is a ‘must buy’ for anyone not allergic to the harpsichord.

In addition to the two Hantaï performances being of different conception, the harpsichords used add to the distinctions. In the 1993 performance, Hantaï’s choice of instrument is a very warm-sounding Dutch Bruce Kennedy model. In the new performance, Hantaï plays a Jonte Knif German model that is sharper and more detailed than the Dutch model. One does hear some mechanical action from the Knif harpsichord, but the effect is not distracting.

Assuming that monetary considerations are not limiting, I strongly suggest that readers acquire both Hantaï recordings and revel in one of the greatest keyboard works ever created.

Don Satz

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