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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV988 (1741) [62:28]
Beth Levin (piano)
rec. live, 28 April 2007, Steinway Hall, New York City
CENTAUR CRC2927 [62:28]

 

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With a live recording, there is always the chance that something magical will happen, a unique event which one senses could never be reproduced in the dry atmosphere of a studio. Beth Levin isn’t the only pianist to have gone live in a traversal of Bach’s keyboard masterpiece the Goldberg Variations, and I pick the exceptional Andrea Bacchetti as an example, and one of any number of strong contenders in a crowded market. Listening again to Bacchetti, and I am struck by his lithe and expressively athletic playing. He throws most of the ornaments in as improvisatory gestures and with a sense of joyous spontaneity, and his limpid touch creates gorgeous legato in the instrument. Swiftly paced, and with each variation coming hot on the heels of the last, you are gripped and held in a sense of organic flow which is irrepressible.

I’m not usually given to starting a review by pointing out the wonders of a competitor, but it’s easy to become carried away with Bacchetti. Returning to Beth Levin, and we find her immediately at something of a disadvantage with the piano sound. The mid-range notes in the right hand have a rather clangy, metallic quality: what my colleague Johan the piano rather unkindly calls the ‘Kawai sound’.  A live recording, assuming it hasn’t been doctored in the editing studio, is always a snapshot: there’s no going back, and I am sure Beth Levin would be the first to rue the technical fluffs which crop up here and there from quite early on in this performance. We’ve all become spoilt by the perfection offered by squeaky-clean studio recordings, and I personally don’t mind the occasional muffed note. Levin only just survives some variations however. Take Variation 5 as an example, and you will hear what I mean. By way of revenge she seems to attack the next variation, the Canon on the second with a rather thumpy and over hasty touch. I don’t want to be picky through the whole recording, but there are some moments which gave me a little pain in the chest. Around 0:34 into variation 14 for instance, Levin seems to have forgotten where she was, and the tempo dips distressingly. This is however a feature of some of her openings as well as repeats and transitions: the otherwise mostly delightful Variation 23 also does this in the first section, becoming a little less delightful as the second half progresses. Levin tries to make the opening of Variation 29 sound like the “staggered chords that remind one of a pipe organ”. I’m afraid to me it sounded more like the pipes falling out of the organ loft and coming a cropper on a rather hard floor.

Beth Levin’s concert would no doubt have been an enjoyable one, and the audience listens in almost entirely rapt silence. The microphone is however unforgiving, and in a recording which you would like to think can be played with pleasure time and time again many of these negative aspects become all too intrusive. I enjoy her honest music making and sensitivity in the gentler variations, such as the Canon on the third, the poetic Variation 13 and more – Levin’s Variation 25 is wonderfully timeless and enigmatic. Her personal comments in the booklet are great fun, and somewhat revealing. Some of the comments remind me a little of the imperious piano lessons I had when young: “...dare to be bold.” There are however numerous insightful observations and little throwaway references which make for fascinating reading.

Releasing this live ‘warts and all’ performance of the Goldberg Variations has to be seen as brave, considering the names it will have to sit next to on the record shop shelves. Without dismissing it outright, I can only offer a small recommendation for this recording as an alternative view to some of the more mainstream choices. One of Beth Levin’s teachers, Rudolf Serkin, apparently recorded his Goldberg Variations onto piano rolls, and I for one would be intrigued to compare these with Levin’s interpretation.

Dominy Clements

 





 


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