Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 (1742)
Joanna MacGregor (piano)
rec. 30 September, 1 October 2007, Mozarteum, Salzburg.
WARNER CLASSICS & JAZZ 2564 68393-3 [61:04]

OK, so this is a crowded market, and there are now almost as many piano recordings around of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as there are recording pianists. Making a statement on this music can be many things, but what it always will be is a personal reflection of the pianist on the music, whether they see it as an athletic vehicle for miraculous technique, as a world filled with possibilities for romantic expression or as the bookends to an entire career. We can bang on about ‘yet another recording’ or ‘do we need this’, but great art can be spread over as big a canvas as you like, and if any great piece of keyboard music can take being looked at in an infinity of different angles then the Goldberg Variations can easily stand as a definition of such a work.

Joanna MacGregor, known for her flamboyant crossover projects and remarkable powers with contemporary music, admits to having had the score of the Goldberg Variations on the piano for twenty years before daring to open it. Her notes on the piece are concise but revealing. She sees it in context: imitative of but in many ways superior to Bach’s own contemporaries, and as a “godfather to the massive keyboard cycle, where a single player sets out on a long transformative journey.” The influential resonances which MacGregor will have felt under her fingers are referred to at times in the short personal responses to each variation, mentioning Beethoven and Chopin in the 25th variation, Tallis in Variation 22, Rameau in 14, Ligeti in 15 and others. The notes conclude “And you know the ending.” Well, you thought you did ...

I came to this recording with an open mind, but more concerned and intrigued than excited and expectant. Much as I admire MacGregor’s musicianship in all weird and wonderful directions, the Goldberg Variations is always going to be a sensitive topic, and I was worried I might end up having to make too many negative comments and becoming a miserable and curmudgeonly Cock Robin assassin. Well, to my ears there are more positives than negatives in this recording, but I don’t consider it perfect by any means. The piano sound is nice, but a bit distant – one of those aural pictures to which you can adjust quite easily, but more like a seat in the middle of the auditorium than up-close and detailed. MacGregor clearly respects the music too much to muck about with it, and the flow and rhythm of each variation is usually held together very nicely. There are a few moments where a state of collapse does seem almost imminent, which surprised me. Variation 8 is perhaps one such case, though I have the feeling that the composerly way in which MacGregor points out the harmonic theme, the rising spread-chord feature and its inversion, means that the running lines are touched too lightly in places and one or two notes seem to be missed. I do like her lyrical touch with the gentler variations, and you can put it down to the power of suggestion, but I can hear her “earthy and humorous” approach in Variation 10, though some might find this a bit more heavy and lumpy than fun. Pedalling is an issue in places, with some smearing of textures in places – Variation 12 for instance – though this can also be seen as contrast in the context of the whole. The flexibility which MacGregor takes in the beautiful Variation 13 works very nicely to my mind, creating an effect of poignancy and longing. There were clearly some severe problems with Variation 14, which is a veritable chopping board of edits, evidenced by acoustic dropouts and other little cross-fade tell-tales.

Tempi are for the most part within what one might call expected parameters. The canonic Variation 15 is perhaps a little slower than usual – certainly at its conclusion, but with some fascinatingly elongated lines for the ear and brain to follow and relish. MacGregor does indulge in a few idiosyncratic byways which may or may not irritate, for instance going into an unexpected ‘swing’ rhythm toward the end of Variation 18. The only really extreme tempo is the slowness of Variation 22, which is described as “a gateway to another world.” MacGregor also lingers over Variation 25, “the great Pietà”, but doesn’t fuss over the notes, allowing the music to speak for itself and building a remarkably monumental and forward-looking movement. The final journey home is kicked in a little rockily with a Variation 26 which only just stays on the rails, like one of those wild Spielberg rides through the tunnels of a rickety mine. Variation 29 is taken as a kind of free fantasia with plenty of dramatic rubato, but the penultimate Quodlibet is eminently singable. The final Aria appears from the final notes of this out of a mist of held pedal notes – a strange “Alpha Omega”, but appropriate in a funny kind of way.

So what are we left with? This is not, I would say, a definitive desert-island kind of Goldberg Variations. What it does do is shine the music through a prism which sometimes distorts, sometimes splits the colours of the work into radiant spectra, sometimes exposes it to elements which are products of the music of our times or musical moments since Bach. Listening to Joanna MacGregor is rarely anything but an enjoyable and fascinating experience, albeit a rather edge-of-the-seat one at times. Adding these factors together I end up with a recommendation, but one perhaps directed more towards connoisseurs than newcomers to this most remarkable and essential Clavier-Übung.

Dominy Clements