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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 [79.32]
Vladimir Feltsman (piano)
rec. 26 October 1991, Moscow Conservatory
NIMBUS NI 2507 [79.32] 

Experience Classicsonline


I simply can’t resist a recording of the Goldberg Variations, no matter how many I have and have heard, and reviewed, no matter whether on the harpsichord, transcribed or on the piano. Which, technically, is a transcription, too – but so accepted by now, that we don’t think of it as such.

Like probably everyone who is familiar with this work, I have certain favorites or have been shaped, in my expectations, from recordings that left an emotional footprint – usually because they were the first with which one was exposed to the work. Glenn Gould’s recordings are so fêted, rank so high, because his was one of the first, certainly the most iconic, recording that brought the Goldberg Variations to our attention. For listeners and performers alike it remains the most important recording in the catalogue, but in more than part because of its landmark status, not because of the playing or interpretation.

Gould’s 1955 recording might be the first (important) word on the Goldberg Variations on piano, but it isn’t the last. Evidently, because among the 300+ recordings that have since been made, there must be well over 100 that also use the piano, and all – hopefully – by pianists that thought they, too, had something to say about the aria and its 30 variations.

Among those to follow Gould, I cherish Murray Perahia (2000, Sony) for a suave, romantic approach and fine tone – the nervously idiosyncratic, Gouldesque, at times, Konstantin Lifschitz (1994, Denon), and Evgeni Koroliov’s 1999 recording (on Hänssler Classics) who, after a boring aria, plays the variations with that inevitable, compelling, clockwork-like momentum that seems so indelibly Bach’s.

Issued now, on Nimbus, is Vladimir Feltsman’s recording of the Goldberg Variations which was once available on MusicMasters/BMG and through the Musical Heritage Society. That was in the early 1990s, shortly after they were recorded at a recital Feltsman gave on 26 October 1991, at the Moscow Conservatory. In more than one regard, there are parallels to his younger Russian colleague Lifschitz, whose recording is also live, also recorded at the Conservatory (it was the 16 year old Lifschitz’s graduate recital, if I recall correctly), also observes all the repeats, and also employs mock register changes.

Feltsman’s touch is very deliberate, delicate, and of weightless elegance in the aria, though never ‘precious’. Very early on it becomes clear that Feltsman plays Bach more as if he were on a harpsichord than any pianist I have heard, but he doesn’t do it in the Gould way of trying to make the piano sound like the harpsichord it isn’t. No repeat is exactly as the first – there are always changes in registration, ornamentation, or voicing – sometimes all of them together. That can sound idiosyncratic, even here, but sufficient musical sensibility and taste prevent the playing from ever becoming a display of wayward vulgarity.

The arpeggiated four note chord in the 11th bar of the aria, a calling card for every interpreter, is first taken from the top down (g2-e2-b-g) as does Gould (and various pianists, but usually only in the repeat) – to marvelous effect. Feltsman doesn’t invert it in the repeat – which he starts out an octave higher, he makes it a coy bracketed step (g2- b- e2-g). The faux-register shifts, like Feltsman’s in the aria repeat, shifts can drive harpsichord players up the wall when done in place of actually changing nuances, because it seems to suggest that the pianist thinks that a harpsichord played really only changes octaves, rather than further vary his or her playing. Thankfully, Feltsman does them in a far less self-conscious manner than Martin Stadtfeld, who burst onto the scene with a self-recorded, idiosyncratic version of the Goldberg Variations that was picked up by Sony Europe. Nor does he leave it at playing higher or lower or switching voices from the right to the left hand and back, which is what Lifschitz could be said to be guilty of. Feltsman varies his touch even when he is already doing something more obviously ‘different’ with a repeat.

As far as piano interpretations are concerned, his is as far away as can be from the overt and, dare I say: schmaltzy, emoting of Simone Dinnerstein. (Not that her approach is per se bad, or her recording – if you like the style – anything but fine and worth listening to.) His ‘stubbed out’ fourth variation doesn’t glide by, it happily, haltingly bops along. Variation 14 is particularly colorful as notes twitter at the listener from all registers.

Bringing the Goldberg Variations – with all repeats – in under 80 minutes speaks of the nimble fingers that Feltsman employs often, but not throughout nor indiscriminately. He is very audibly unconcerned about getting things ‘done in time’ whenever he lingers, as for example in variation 15.

There isn’t the focus on forward propulsion that makes Koroliov’s recording (85 minutes) special, but everything is ever-vigilant and entertaining. Because you are always expecting something new, it makes for very alert ears. Undoubtedly a happy surprise – and one of the most charming piano accounts I have heard in a long time. If repeat listening will prove to be as enjoyable as the first impression was good I can’t tell, but I know that I will listen to it repeatedly – and gladly – until I know.

Jens F. Laurson


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