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CD: Alba

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg-Variationen: Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen BWV 988 (1741) [79:38]
Aapo Häkkinen (harpsichord)
rec. 10-12 November 2008, St. Peter’s Church, Siuntio
ALBA ABCD283 [79:38]
Experience Classicsonline

I’m a huge fan of this music, and it is refreshing to come back to a recording of a fine sounding harpsichord, even after some superb experiences with versions on piano and even organ (see review). The instrument used here is a fine modern harpsichord by Joel Katzman of Amsterdam. It may be my imagination, but having this music on a recently made instrument gives this recording a freshly minted, ‘new’ feel. I would compare this to the grass on a Dutch polder. Land that is only sixty or seventy years old seems to have a brighter colour to the grass than the more ancient turf further inland, and in the same way this harpsichord is a long way from having its sound darkened by a patina of time and usage.

Aapo Häkkinen’s performance of this great piece is equally wide awake, and a breath of fresh Finnish air through your loudspeakers. We have come across his name both as a conductor and as a performer before, and nothing in this recording of the Goldberg Variations will be taking anything away from these positive responses to his previous work. The booklet notes for this release are Wanda Landowska’s fascinating 1933 essay on the Goldberg Variations published in ‘Landowska on Music’ from 1964. All we miss is the player’s own feelings about the piece, but the playing speaks for itself eloquently enough not to need this in words. Häkkinen is not as extreme as Landowska in reining back the tempi in some of the earlier variations, but I have heard Variatio I played a little faster than here. Häkkinen leads us in gently, refusing to burst loose with fireworks at the first hurdle. He also refuses to bombard us with extravagances of extra ornamentation, and each variation holds its own tempo with just enough margin of elasticity to allow the music to flow with generous expression, while avoiding mannered over-interpretation.

Listening to this recording, I have been confronted with a mixture of inner arguments and a variety of sensations. My initial response was that, even with all the very fine playing, I was missing something of an element of surprise. The problem is, we have all become so used to Glenn Gould and others teasing extremes of expression and drama out of their modern grand pianos that it can seem a step backwards when evaluating a harpsichord performance in which the tempi are, with some obvious exceptions, fairly similar through the length of the piece. In this way, one can easily hear Häkkinen as more ‘middle of the road’ in terms of his Goldberg Variations, but this would be shockingly unfair and negative when getting down to the actual playing on this disc. Another feeling which is even harder to pin down is that sense of narrative and traversal which I always unconsciously experience with BWV 988. Häkkinen arrives at a significant point in the Variatio 21, Canone alla Settima, which bursts forth with revelatory expressiveness. It requires a little backtracking to decide if we’ve merely been waiting for this point all along, or if the previous variations have been building a subtle architecture which arches towards this golden section climax. Maybe I’m imbuing this, or the piece/performance as a whole, with too much weight in this regard, but having found an anchor on which to hang what I perceive to be Häkkinen’s structural approach I felt I was approaching repeated hearings with a different attitude.

What Häkkinen eschews in terms of overt musical messages he seeks in the subtleties within the music. There are lovely little touches everywhere. Some, like the little delay at the beginning of the gentle shower of notes in Variatio 23, might seem a trifle affected, but these aspects of the performance fit with entire naturalness into Häkkinen’s approach to Bach, and there are no jarring moments or variations where I found myself asking why? Häkkinen’s touch at the keyboard can create a fine sense of legato, the notes overlapping just enough to give that impression of a smooth line - not easily achieved on the harpsichord. There are nice little lifts in the musical mini-sentences which ride that undulating wave of notes in Variatio 26, but feel the underlying pulse of the music and you’ll hear it is stable as can be. The journey through that wealthy penultimate Quodlibet is magnificent, and rounded off with a final Aria which is more a closing of the circle, rather than a reflective pontification on what has gone before.

One other positive aspect of this release is the recording. This has been made in a church acoustic, but the resonance only lends a mild sense of wider spaces beyond the environment of the instrument. The harpsichord has been quite closely recorded, but has a fine enough tone to cope with close scrutiny. There is no mechanical noise, the warmth of the bass strings brings a strong foundation to the counterpoint and harmonic movement, and the mid and upper range have a brightness and clarity without being jangly. The SACD effect enhances the depth of the sound picture, providing the imagination with a tangible sense of the size and shape of the instrument, and the thrumming vibration of the strings in the air.

Competition is of course fierce in this field, though recordings of this piece on harpsichord seem to have been less fashionable of late. Both Richard Egarr and Kenneth Gilbert are strong contenders on Harmonia Mundi, and I have lived happily with Trevor Pinnock’s recording on Archiv for many years. Every time I have come back to this recording however, I have been given that warm feeling of welcoming music-making, and a definite desire to hear the piece all the way through. If you are currently looking for a marvellously played, state-of-the-art recording of the Goldberg Variations then do try to look beyond the ghastly mudbath of a photo on the cover of this release and buy it without hesitation.

Dominy Clements



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