Harpsichord versions of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations don’t seem to roll off the presses in quite the same quantities as piano versions these days, but this is still a hotly competitive field for any new entry. Just to pick on two good examples, I’ve been having a listen to Masaaki Suzuki’s recording on the BIS label, as well as making comparisons with another fairly recent harpsichord recording by Aapo Häkkinen on the Alba label (see review). Suzuki has plenty of drive and energy, going for brisk tempi and crisp articulation which keeps everything going with plenty of zip – something you may or may not want in your Goldbergs, but is good to have around if you are in the mood. Häkkinen is frequently more reserved in tempo, and more inclined to introduce a rubato flexibility into his musical narrative.
It’s a terrible thing to make sweeping generalisations, but Steven Devine falls somewhere in between these two players. He has a fairly flexible approach, using a certain amount of rubato to bring out the shapes of phrases but not distorting melodic lines in the process, and certainly not applying as much freedom as Häkkinen. Nor does he drive the music as hard as Suzuki. Tempi are decently forward moving without being tumultuous, and Devine’s articulation is clear without being overly picky, with a nice legato effect. Ornamentation is certainly not extreme, with a few extra passing notes here and there – certainly not exceeding the bounds of acceptable convention. There was only one point which made me check my references: Variatio 6 is played with a slightly odd semi-triplet rhythm, a sort of tum-ti-tum-ti effect, but not quite explicitly, and not quite all the time. Devine writes useful booklet notes about the history and some of the forms in this piece, but doesn’t go into his own interpretative choices when recording the work – probably not necessary when going for what is essentially an uncontroversial reading.
This is a fine recording made using a superb instrument by Colin Booth, indeed, the one seen pictured on the cover for this release. The microphones are placed close, but the lack of mechanical noise and the fine sonority of the harpsichord mean you can be close up and intimate without feeling assaulted by upper harmonics. There are some lovely effects in this piece, and the points at which the parts cross in the two-manual variations such as Variatio 8 are particularly distinguished here. Even after extensive listening it is however tricky to know where to place this recording amongst the pantheon. I have a nostalgia-tinted affection for Trevor Pinnock on the Archiv label, though even his fine recording can sound a bit ‘chunky’ these days. While I still like Aapo Häkkinen I accept his more obvious pulling around of the phrasing can sound a little mannered in places, and certainly by comparison with Steven Devine. The Alba recording is a little more respectful in terms of distance though and is ultimately a less fatiguing listen. Häkkinen’s Joel Katzman instrument also has a thrumming/ringing quality which I can take for long periods. The Booth instrument is a little more nasal in tone, though by no means unattractive. Both recordings are almost identical in terms of overall timing by the way.
It’s only when you start casting the net wider and encounter desperately pedestrian sounding recordings like that of Shin-ichiro Nakano on the Meister Music label that you come to appreciate the quality of these performances. There are also plenty of intolerably jangly ones around, but we’re still spoilt for choice. For every also-ran there’s another fine version, such as Ketil Haugsand on the Simax label, and the ancient and stately Wanda Landowska makes her own views on the piece more than emphatically clear despite an antique recording. All I can say is that Steve Devine’s recording of the Goldberg Variations is certainly amongst the best, making all of the crucial musical points very effectively and with plenty of expressive breathing room. There’s nothing stodgy about his playing, but neither is it lightweight and ephemeral. I can’t say it’s revelatory, but I doubt there are any of these left to come, at least, not on harpsichord. If you already have a much loved harpsichord version of this great work on your shelves then this might not push it aside, although you might by chance have one of the dodgy ones and not know what you are missing. Bearing this in mind by all means give this recording a try – you certainly won’t be disappointed.