Arthur had his quest for the Holy Grail, and Columbus searched for riches in the New World. Although not in pursuit of such lofty goals, the early music keyboardist
Richard Egarr searches for Bach's cantabile heaven in his new
recording of the Goldberg Variations. In his booklet notes,
Egarr makes his case that the harpsichord "firmly belongs
within the resonant family of instruments - with the lute and
harp. We must try to make it the 'machine-that-can-sing', or
at least ring".
Egarr is not happy with the tendency of harpsichordists to offer
strongly-articulated phrasing which is too detached to allow
Bach's singing tone to prevail. In Egarr's quest to find cantabile
heaven, he uses two unique features. First, he employs a tuning
system that has recently been advanced as the one Bach may have
used for his own keyboard works. This system was researched
and developed by the musicologist and early keyboard artist
Bradley Lehman. Without going into the details of the research,
Lehman has taken a 17th century sixth comma meantone tuning
and adjusted it to accommodate the most remote key areas. In
doing so, Lehman is confident that he has developed a tuning
regimen that highlights the musicality and attractiveness of
the harpsichord. Egarr is of like mind, and uses Lehman's tuning
system to assist in reaching cantabile heaven.
second device Egarr employs concerns seagull quills. As Egarr
explains, "My instrument was thoroughly re-voiced in seagull
for this recording. There is a softer-edged beginning to the
sound that seems to coax the note into life rather than forcing
it. It is absolutely more vocal - once again allowing Bach greater
access to his desired cantabile".
the Lehman tuning system and use of quills have a significant
effect on the musical presentation? I am convinced that these
features have substantial impact. Never have I heard such fluid
and elastic phrasing along with a beautiful harpsichord tone.
Of course, Egarr has much to do with these effects, and I think
it fair to say that he has fully succeeded in reaching Bach's
all is far from perfect. Egarr has placed an enormous weight
on a singing and highly melodious tone to the detriment of other
factors. His articulation is generally on the weak side, and
it has been quite a few years since I've heard a version of
the Goldberg Variations with so little determination; pointed
phrasing simply gets little attention from Egarr, and the quills
do not help the matter. Perhaps most important, Egarr conveys
little of the excitement, drive and momentum of the faster variations
that comes from the best harpsichord versions including those
of Kenneth Gilbert on Harmonia Mundi, Gustav Leonhardt on Teldec,
and Pierre Hantaï on Mirare. Egarr takes the fast variations
at a pace much slower than the norm, robbing them of their inherent
exuberance and propulsive elements and substituting an unappealing
restraint and sluggishness. Another problematic aspect is that
Egarr is not interested in representing the underbelly of the
human condition as Variations 9, 13, 15, and 25 (The Black Pearl)
are not sufficiently characterized. Disappointment also comes
to center-stage with Egarr's performance of Variation 30. In
this, a singing tone is an absolute necessity; yet, Egarr abandons
his own stated cantabile goals and offers a choppy presentation.
Egarr's version of the Goldberg Variations has value, it comes
from the charm, elegance, beauty of line and elasticity of the
performances. But those felicities are not sufficient on their
own to win the day. Ultimately, in a great performance of the
Goldbergs, I salivate at the thought of hearing the repeats.
Although Egarr observes all of them, in not one case do I find
myself eagerly awaiting them.
adds a nice filler in the form of Bach's Fourteen Canons on
the first eight bass notes of the opening Aria of the Goldberg
Variations. They were discovered in 1974 but remain infrequently
recorded, no doubt because some of the canons are impossible
to play by only one performer. Egarr's solution, one that likely
will not sit well with purists, is to multi-track the canons
requiring more than two hands. Regardless, the performance is
excellent and pays less attention to a cantabile style than
Egarr offers in the main work. The result is a more pointed
and strongly articulated interpretation.
conclusion, those who treasure elegance, beauty and elasticity
in their Bach keyboard recordings should be well satisfied with
the new Egarr version of the Goldberg Variations. But those
looking for a broader set of qualities might be disappointed.
Personally, I find the interpretations rather soft-grained with
a very low excitement/drive quotient. The booklet notes are
exceptional and give a fine explanation of Egarr's motivation
in making this recording; the soundstage is clear and crisp
with admirable depth. If it seems that I have been straddling
the fence a little, allow me to correct the situation by stating
clearly that Egarr's version is not one of the great recorded
performances of the Goldbergs.