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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 (1741)
Jenö Jandó, piano
Recorded Phoenix Studio, Budapest, Hungary, February 2003
NAXOS 8.557268 [77:29]
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Jenö Jandó, a fine 'house pianist' for the Naxos label, currently has more recordings on the market than any other pianist. In fact, the only performers with more recordings are the vocalists Placido Domingo, Maria Callas, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Luciano Pavarotti. Although Jandó hasn't recorded a great deal of baroque music, he has put on record Bach's complete Well Tempered Clavier. I am very familiar with those performances and many others from Jandó, and I tend to find that he offers excellent interpretations that don't quite hold up to the best alternative versions. Overall, Jandó has been a steady guide for those who are looking for super-budget recordings of piano music.

In recording Bach's Goldberg Variations, Jandó enters a huge field with over 100 alternative versions. On piano, we have exceptional interpretations from Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck, András Schiff, Tatiana Nikolayeva, and Charles Rosen. On harpsichord, the stellar recordings come from Kenneth Gilbert, Pierre Hantaï, Igor Kipnis, Trevor Pinnock, Gustav Leonhardt, and the legendary Wanda Landowska.

Sad to say, Jandó's new version not only doesn't compare well to the above recordings, it is one of the least rewarding performances in the catalogs. Problematic aspects abound, and these are the few that head the list:

1. There is little lift to the playing as his penchant is to flatten notes and perform in a 'metronome-like' fashion with minimal regard to the subtleties in Bach's music.

2. Another habit exhibited is a preference for rounded notes that reduces the impact of Bach's sharp contours such as in the 10th and 22nd Variations.

3. The bleak variations, Nos. 15, 21, and 25 (Black Pearl) only get a light dusting of negativity.

4. Inflections and accenting are often weak, depleting both the strength and poignancy of the music.

5. Dialogue among the musical lines is undernourished, a major failing in a Bach performance. Much of this is caused by a lack of balance among voices, making effective communication difficult. Actually, there are a few times when Jandó's playing sounds rather clumsy.

6. To top things off, Jandó seems to have a formula to playing Bach's repeats - soften the tone and add short trills in the upper melody lines. This isn't a bad approach when heard in one or two variations, but Jandó's steady diet of it becomes tiresome. The trills are particularly hard to accept because of their contrived and cute nature.

Moving on to comparison piano versions, the excitement and precision of the three Gould versions on Sony is sorely lacking in Jandó's account. Rosalyn Tureck (Philips and Deutsche Grammophon) always probes into the music's depth, but Jandó appears content to skim all surfaces. Schiff's vibrancy and joy of music has no place in Jandó's flat world. I could go on, but suffice to say that the best features of alternative recordings are 'missing in action' when Jandó is at the helm.

Having been hard on Jandó, I do have to say that the performance is serviceable and soundstage acceptable. But the fierce competition puts this interpretation into the unnecessary and unwanted grouping. Those who have and enjoy his account of the Well Tempered Clavier are cautioned to expect a less rewarding experience from his Goldberg Variations. I have tried my best to appreciate the performance, but I keep finding new problems each time I listen to the disc. When additional listening reduces one's enjoyment, it is time to close up shop and move on to other recordings.

Don Satz

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