Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 (1741) [73:58]
Colin Booth (harpsichord)
rec. October 2010, Westbury sub Mendip, England

Having reviewed Colin Booth’s excellent book Did Bach Really Mean That? Deceptive Notation in Baroque Keyboard Music, it would have seemed almost rude not to hear how the author’s commitment to accuracy in performance sounds. Indeed, Booth states that this recording of the Goldberg Variations is here “to demonstrate the book’s suggestions… so as to allow listeners to judge the results with their ears.”

The differences are sometimes subtle and often less so, but one little alteration in the opening Aria is immediately apparent, putting us on alert from the outset. This is the second grace note in the second bar, played short rather than leant on and played as an eighth-note, as would seem to be more proportionate to the half-note to which it is attached, as opposed to that preceding the eighth note directly beforehand. One thing I don’t plan to do is get into technical analyses which, as the previous sentence aptly demonstrates, are dull to read and more often than not confusing without the illustrations which gives Booth’s book added clarity. His argument for this reading is demonstrated in some discussion on the subject by Quantz, relating it to the modern galant style to which J.S. Bach seemed to be responding in his opening to the Goldberg Variations. Booth also says that the ambiguity about playing this second grace note long or short “at least presents the modern player with two equally justifiable and very different modes of execution (along with subtle variations of each which would defy any attempt at accurate notation).” Examples of this can be heard with Aapo Häkkinen on the Alba label (see review) and Steven Devine playing a Colin Booth instrument on Chandos (see review), where in both cases that second grace note is teased a little longer than with Booth’s more strict approach, reluctant to relinquish that expressive elongation but still hovering somewhere near that galant principle as well.

A non-dogmatic approach is something I appreciate greatly in Booths’ writing on ornamentation, and as a result I find myself easily following his demonstrations within the Goldberg Variations. It’s so easy to play things the way we expect to hear them, and takes daring to present sometimes stark alternatives which are nonetheless based on historical evidence. In a sense, it would be nice to have two or even more alternative recordings of some of the variations, or perhaps an educational DVD attached to the final performance, such is the fertility of this ground for fascinating exploration. These issues of alternative interpretations of Bach’s ornaments are however a subject for open discussion, not that of a CD review.

The general impression one would expect to have from this recording might have been one of scholarly dryness, were it not for Colin Booth’s elegance and style as a performer, and his ability to play Bach’s rhythms with a spring in his step. Variation 7 is a case in point, where our guide clearly relishes the dance element in the music, emphasising the lightness in the upward runs and melodic gestures. One of the aspects of this recording is a relatively sober approach to tempi, and even the variations we’ve become accustomed to hearing at least fairly fast are played here with measured consideration. Booth’s interpretations follow stylistic and character generating ways of performing, rather than going in for precipitate speeds. As C.P.E. Bach wrote, “In general, liveliness in allegros is conveyed by detached notes, and the feeling of adagios by sustained, slurred notes – even when not so marked.” Play the variations 8 and 9 after each other, and you will hear exactly what is meant, the first detached but not really ‘fast’, the second legato, but not really ‘slow’. If you listen carefully to the inner pulse of each variation you will hear significant changes in tempo, but within parameters more often exceeded by modern players. This means that a superficial impression might be one of too much homogeneity of pace, but rest assured, Colin Booth knows exactly what he is doing, and why.

This business of character is a strong feature in Colin Booth’s recording. Where the style is French, you really hear this; where the music has a dance character you hear the sense of formal pattern or spring in the rhythm, and where the lyrical lines have a more ‘fantasia’ feel then the sense of rubato is just enough to give expressive stretch and flexibility. I won’t say I always feel the ornamentation is necessarily the most beautiful solution in some variations – the short octaves in Variation 25 for instance become more of a technical feature rather than a musical point, though as with all these things it is the accustomed ear which is obliged to learn new things. Going back to the more usual lengthened grace note is less straightforward after having heard such a convincingly played alternative, and once your brain has experienced this Goldberg Variations it is subsequently much less likely to take things for granted – which is the way it should be.

The printed notes for this release sum up points made by the author in his book, and develop others in particular relevant to the work at hand. Nicely recorded on a beautiful instrument in an intimate but not unattractive acoustic, in short, this is a Goldberg Variations which everyone needs to hear. It may not become a first choice for relaxed evenings with a glass of port, but it teaches us that so much about what we thought we knew of the piece is really cliché and wisdom received by traditions established by much later performers. J.S. Bach himself may not have played this music in quite the same way, but I have the feeling he would have felt common ground with this authentic performance and taken a great interest, and he and Colin Booth would chat and duel on their respective harpsichords until long after the audience had taken their leave. You don’t need Colin Booth’s book to enjoy this CD or vice versa, but it will certainly help in your understanding of both if your interest has been woken by either.

Dominy Clements

So, you thought you knew the Goldberg Variations ...