It must be hard to record the Goldberg Variations
today. With literally dozens of recordings available for harpsichord,
piano, clavichord, organ, guitar, string trio and other transcriptions,
this work is very well represented, with many excellent performances.
Not only does one have to swim against the tide of other recordings
but you’re also up against the spectre of Glenn Gould, who famously
recorded the Goldbergs twice (in 1955 and 1981).
I'm sure most readers of this review are familiar
with the work: an aria, thirty variations, then an aria da
capo; these are not variations on a melody, but rather a
bass-line. Perhaps Bach's best known major work, the Goldbergs
are an anthology of different styles, tones and musical colours.
Simone Dinnerstein comes to this recording in a
unique way. Having self-produced this album in order to jump-start
her career, it was later picked up by Telarc, and her professional
life has leapt into full gear. She is very good at promotion,
with her own web-site and MySpace page,
and having a pretty face can't hurt.
But Dinnerstein is not just a blue-eyed wonder.
Her recording of the Goldbergs is unique, and stands apart from
many of the interpretations available. First, the basics. The
recording is impeccable, and the sound of the 1903 Hamburg Steinway
model D concert grand is rich and luscious. It has a close,
homey sound, unlike some recordings of the Goldbergs that try
for a big, imposing sound, using reverb or aiming to reflect
the impersonal sound of a large, empty concert hall.
When you first start listening to this recording,
you cannot avoid being struck by the slowness of the opening
aria. While some other performers - notably Gould in 1981 -
turn this into a meditation, Dinnerstein goes much further,
as though she were stroking the keys of her piano to squeeze
out every nuance and subtle colour in the piece. She plays the
full repeat of the aria, making it more than five and a half
minutes long - the longest of the more than twenty versions
of the Goldbergs in my collection. Then the first variation
comes, and Dinnerstein shifts into high-gear; perhaps too much
of a shift for my taste, though she negotiates every tight curve
perfectly - there is no doubt about her ability to play the
most virtuosic passages without even batting an eyelid.
As the work goes on, one may be struck by the differences
in tempi; in fact, if I have one criticism of this recording,
it's the stark contrast that Dinnerstein makes, at times, between
one variation and the next. She is at her strongest in the slow,
languorous variations, where she draws them out, turning them
into romantic miniatures. Some people may think that "romantic"
Bach is an anachronism; I don't feel that way at all.
At times, her tempi sound "normal", at
least in comparison with other recordings. In variation 13,
for example, she seems to have found the ideal middle-ground,
yet with her performance of the repeats, this variation still
takes over five minutes. Variation 21 is another long, meditative
section, at over four minutes, and, again, the tone here is
one of introspection. Variation 22, melodically very close to
the opening and closing aria, is even slower. It's not as though
Dinnerstein is trying to find different ways to play any of
the variations; one can hear that she's found her sweet spot
for each one, and that some are slow, others very slow, and
others more rapid. In fact, as the work progresses, the extremes
fade away, and the tempi are more familiar. There are more slower
tempi than in many recordings, but the contrasts are less obvious.
Yet for all her slow tempi, Dinnerstein gives short
shrift to variation 25, the long, slow adagio which is, in my
opinion, one of Bach's masterpieces. At a bit under five minutes,
this is shorter than many performances - notably shorter and
faster than Gould's 1981 recording. Even so this is exactly
the point where I would have expected her to stretch out and
take her time. She does play slowly and with very interesting
dynamics, but doesn't play the repeats. This, in essence, weakens
this variation, which is one of the most profound, and, in Dinnerstein's
approach, should have been the cornerstone.
Dinnerstein doesn't play all the repeats. With
the recording coming in at over 78 minutes, this may be due
to the limits of a single CD. In the promotional video on her
web site, she mentions that when she plays the work with all
the repeats it takes about 90 minutes. In a way, it's a shame
that the recording doesn't go all the way. It seems that Dinnerstein's
recording would be more balanced with that extra dozen minutes
of music. To be fair, very few Goldberg Variations recordings
cover two CDs; one recent exception is Richard Egarr's recording
on Harmonia Mundi, which clocks in at just over 90 minutes.
This is an excellent recording of the Goldberg
Variations, yet because of the extremes of tempi it lacks overall
balance. It's clear that Dinnerstein has carefully thought out
how she approaches each variation, yet perhaps she is missing
a bit of the forest for the trees. At times it sounds as though
she wants to slow down the music and get to the quanta of the
notes; at others she goes along in overdrive. While this contrast
is not necessarily a negative, it can be jarring, especially
early in the work where it is most apparent. But this is one
recording I'll be listening to many times. Of the two-dozen
Goldberg Variations recordings in my collection, this one is
definitely in the top five. Nevertheless, I'll look forward
to the day that Simone Dinnerstein can re-record this work,
taking all the space and time she needs.