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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Toccatas and Goldberg Variations
CD 1
Seven Toccatas BWV910-16 (c.1710)1
Toccata in D BWV912 [10:44]
Toccata in e minor BWV914 [6:22]
Toccata in f sharp minor BWV 910 [10:48]
Toccata in G BWV916 [8:05]
Toccata in c minor BWV 911 [10:07]
Toccata in d minor BWV913 [12:29]
Toccata in g minor BWV915 [8:29]
CD 2
‘Goldberg’ Variations, BWV988 (Aria with diverse variations for clavicembalo with two manuals) (1741)2 [79:18]
Bob van Asperen (harpsichord by 1Christian Zell, Hamburg, 1728; 2Michel Mietke, Berlin, 1719)
rec. 1Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, 4-8 February 1990; 2Schloß Charlottenburg, Berlin, 9-12 July 1990. DDD
VIRGIN VERITAS 6931982 [67:04 + 79:18] 


Experience Classicsonline

In 2007 I recommended Bob van Asperen’s recording of Bach’s Well-tempered Klavier on two budget-price Virgin Veritas twofers (3 49963 2 – see review – and 3 85795 2: Bargain of the Month – see review).  I actually purchased the first set on the strength of having heard the review copy of the second.  Now his recordings of the early Toccatas and the late Goldberg Variations, originally issued on two EMI Resonance CDs in the early 1990s, join them in that series.  On their first appearances they received very different receptions: while the Toccatas were generally praised, the Goldbergs were thought to be variable, with very slow tempi in some of the variations preventing an overall recommendation.

The Toccatas are early works, influenced by Buxthude’s stylus phantasticus – remember the famous long-distance walk to Hamburg to hear the master perform.  Though very different from the keyboard music which would follow, especially the organ toccatas, and somewhat neglected, perhaps for that reason, they make an interesting programme.  At just over an hour, they’re ideal for a CD. There is much less competition for this half of the reissue; if you like Bach on the piano, Angela Hewitt represents the main rival (CDA67310, dubbed by Kirk McElhearn ‘a unique insight into what are some of his freest keyboard works’ – see review). 

As it happens, Angela Hewitt and Glenn Gould (see KM’s review of Volume 2, current number 88697 14846 2 – Volume 1 seems no longer available in the UK) are the two exceptions which I make to my general dislike of Bach on the modern piano, but van Asperen adds a touch of historical interest.  Not only does he employ the harpsichord – at this very early stage Bach is unlikely to have intended any of his music for the new-fangled fortepiano – but the instrument is so valuable that it can be recorded only in situ in a Hamburg museum.  Fortunately, as with the recordings of the Well-tempered Klavier, made under the same conditions, the recording venue is a sympathetic one, or the engineers have made it so. I was completely won over by this first CD; unless you can’t stand the harpsichord and must have Angela Hewitt, or Kevin Bowyer on the organ (Nimbus NI70778, 2 CDs) this will do very nicely. 

As if to emphasise the ‘fantastic’ or imaginative nature of the Toccatas, Virgin have chosen for the cover a most striking image of the man in the moon, from a stained-glass window in Rouen, dating from the 1520s.  Interestingly, French artists were depicting the modern image of the man in the moon’s face at a time when their English contemporaries visualised a man weighed down underneath a burden of thorns in punishment for a theft.  Have a look at the full moon and you’ll find that both images work. 

Competition is much more fierce in the Goldberg Variations, with Angel Hewitt’s piano version widely regarded as the most satisfactory contender, a five-star performance and recording for Gerald Fenech (Hyperion CDA67305 – see review); Kenneth Gilbert’s budget-price harpsichord version is also highly regarded (Harmonia Mundi HMA195 1240, on sale in the UK for £5 or less).  My own benchmark remains Trevor Pinnock (DG Archiv 477 5902 at mid price; the 3-CD set, 474 3372, is no longer available). 

Comparisons are particularly difficult to make because the Goldbergs with all repeats taken would exceed the 80-minute CD length; different interpreters omit different repeats.  Pinnock’s overall time of 60:45 against van Asperen’s 79:18 reflects not only the latter’s often slowish tempi but also Pinnock’s tendency to omit more repeats.  Pinnock makes clear the omissions of repeats which he has made – in both the opening and closing statements of the Aria and in Variations 3, 7, 9, 12, 13, 15, 17, 21, 24, 25, 27, 28 and 29.  The Virgin notes don’t indicate van Asperen’s shortenings; in fact, he omits those in Nos. 12, 19, 24, 25 and 27 and the final Aria. 

Despite his offering less music for your money, I generally prefer Pinnock’s performances to those of van Asperen.  A particular case in point is Variation 7 (tr.8 on both recordings), now known to have been marked al tempo di Giga, as indicated in the Archiv track listing.  Van Asperen’s tempo for this variation is lively enough, with quite a lift to the rhythm; perfectly satisfactory until you hear the extra spring in Pinnock’s performance. 

More seriously, van Asperen takes Variation 15 (tr.16 on both recordings), marked Andante, too slowly; an amble rather than a walk.  Pinnock, who omits the repeat here, is much closer to walking pace, as is Hewitt (also tr.16); like Asperen, she observes the repeat but takes a whole minute less.  He, however, quickly atones with a performance of Variation 16 which is just as sparkling as Pinnock’s (tr.17 on both recordings). 

The Goldbergs may be serious stuff, with nine examples of that intellectual game, the canon, as in the Musical Offering and Art of Fugue, but Bach’s employment of a quodlibet – literally ‘what you please’ – as the final variation where we might have expected another canon, shows that the music is not to be taken entirely seriously.  Both van Asperen and Pinnock bring out the fun of this quodlibet, which draws on two popular folk songs: 

Ich bin so lang bei dir g’west

[I’ve been with you so long]


Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben,
hätt’ meine Mutter Fleisch gekocht wär ich länger geblieben

[Cabbage and turnips have driven me away; if my mother had cooked meat I’d have stayed longer] 

If you’re trying the Pinnock version, don’t judge by his performance of the opening theme, the Aria on track 1; like van Asperen, he takes this very sedately – both sound a little dutiful.  At this tempo 2:33 of Pinnock, omitting the repeat, is enough; 5:09 of van Asperen, I fear, was a little too much for me.  Angela Hewitt’s 4:12, with repeats, sounds much more like it – elegant and unhurried, but far from merely dutiful. 

Both van Asperen and Pinnock omit repeats in the final Aria but here, typically, Pinnock brings a touch of extra liveliness and is therefore slightly preferable to van Asperen.  Hewitt also omits the repeat here and comes in slightly faster than either of her competitors. 

Pinnock isn’t universally faster, however; speed isn’t the only criterion – his version of Variations 1 and 2 are actually marginally slower than van Asperen’s.  Even in Variation 3 his tempo is not markedly different from Asperen’s allowing for the fact that this is the first occasion after the Aria in which he omits the repeat and Asperen includes it.  In that quodlibet at the end of the work (tr.31 on both recordings) he’s actually very marginally slower than van Asperen. 

Van Asperen employs a 1719 Mietke harpsichord for the Goldbergs, a type of instrument which Bach is known to have owned earlier in his career; Pinnock’s 1646 Ruckers instrument is, theoretically, less appropriate, but both sound well, the Mietke producing a slightly brighter sound, at least as recorded. 

Pinnock’s 1980 recording is ADD – surprising, because DG were already making digital recordings – but in no way inferior to the Virgin.  Honours are about equal in this respect; in neither case does any aspect of the engineering interfere with enjoyment of the music.  In van Asperen’s case, both the Hamburg museum and Charlottenburg Palace seem to have been good recording venues. 

The Virgin booklet contains cut-down versions of the original notes from the full-price issue.  Whilst they are adequate, containing information for beginners about the background to the Toccatas and how the Goldbergs came to be named after the harpsichordist of the insomniac Count Keyserlinck or Keyserling – why not Keyserlinck Variations? – and the importance of the variation form in Bach’s later music, I’d have liked a little more detail.  I can’t comment on the current reissue of the Pinnock, since I have it in its original full-price format, with a decent English translation of Roswith Borschel’s notes, rather fuller than those of the Virgin reissue. 

Virgin already had a recommendable budget-price Veritas twofer containing the Goldbergs, performed by Maggie Cole (5 61555 2, with Italian Concerto, Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, etc.).  By coincidence, Cole’s version of the Goldbergs came out at almost exactly the same time as van Asperen’s and was generally preferred to his account.  If you’re looking for a good bargain version, either Cole or Gilbert on the Harmonia Mundi single CD are safer bets.  Pinnock at mid price remains my benchmark among harpsichord versions.  Listening to the extracts from Angela Hewitt’s recording on the Hyperion website has made me think that this is, perhaps even more than Pinnock, the version to have; it’s on my want list. 

The van Asperen reissue is something of a curate’s egg, then, with CD1 far superior to CD2.  I can’t award half a thumbs-up, but the first disc deserves the accolade.  I don’t want to give the impression, however, that I didn’t enjoy both CDs.  I shall certainly keep the set, alongside the Pinnock Goldbergs; chiefly for the sake of the Toccatas, but I shall also play van Asperen’s second CD, too.  None of my reservations represent capital offences. 

If the Goldbergs inspire you to explore Bach’s other great late work in variation form, the Art of Fugue, try Helmut Walcha on DG Archiv 477 6508 (2 CDs).  It’s recently been deleted but copies may still be around, or download it from in very acceptable 320kbps mp3 sound.  This was DG’s first stereo recording (1955) but it still sounds extremely well.  I intend to review this recording in more detail in my June, 2009, Download Roundup.

Brian Wilson


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