Johan Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 (1742) [49:22]
Fourteen Canons BWV 1087 [4:40]
Bist du bei mier [2:37]
Daniel-Ben Pienaar (piano)
rec. 3 September 2010, Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London
AVIE AV2235 [56:39]
 
I was highly impressed by and still very much relish my time spent with Daniel-Ben Pienaar’s Mozart’s complete Piano Sonatas on AV 2209 (see review). Fans of this set will find all of this promise further fulfilled in this Goldberg Variations, though as a reviewer it would have been an easier task to welcome slightly less well-trodden repertoire. Pienaar’s Bach is magnificent and, to a point, individual, but does it really stand out in such a crowded field?
 
Daniel-Ben Pienaar poses as many questions as he provides answers in his deeply considered and well written booklet notes for this release. He doesn’t point to specific influences with regard to his interpretations in this great keyboard work, but develops ideas on its place and time both in the present, as well as the alliances formed between the circumstantial and the timeless – qualities and values inherent in the music itself, and the ways in which these can be approached and adapted by players over time.
 
This is a probing intellectual interpretation which on occasion displays dazzling feats of speed, but which is more often a more introverted exploration of the piece. It is almost as if Pienaar is playing for his own satisfaction, and leaving it up to us to decide whether we want to listen and take the journey with him. The compact timing reflects brisk tempi at times, but the unhurried feel of the playing and a minimum of ornamentation also allows a highly selective observation of repeats to remain a credible choice. Pienaar doesn’t work much with ‘variation within variations’, so there is no sense we are being cheated out of colourful technical insights and improvisational touches by not hearing certain bars come around for a second time.
 
Comparisons can be made ad nauseam, but looking at another recent take on the Goldberg Variations by Nick van Bloss on the Nimbus Alliance label (see review) shows how personality shades identical music into fascinatingly different manifestations. Bloss is the more extrovert of the two, seeking wit in the music and cheekily expressing it with effects like an occasional extra octave wallop in the bass. This ‘vibe’ turns his performance into more of a public experience – no less well considered than Pienaar’s, but introducing Bach to the bustle and language of the street: the call of market traders and the revving of motors. Bloss’s Bach isn’t rough and ready, but is easily the more resistant to external knocks and blows, and in this way is more of a challenge to Glenn Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations, the recording which gave the work and its performer such a remarkable hit status at that time.
 
This is not to say Daniel-Ben Pienaar’s recording is weak-willed and softly undemonstrative, but there is a gentler side to his playing – perhaps also a side-effect of a rather rounded piano sound – which brings out the warmth in the heart of the music rather than its big venue street-cred. There is bounce and life where Bach demands it, in the first variation for instance, and this sets the pace for the first grouping of variations which concludes with a rousing Variatio 4. Extremes of speed are a feature of some variations, and Variatio 5 is the first such example, acting as little more than a prelude to Variatio 6. Pienaar’s sensitivity to Bach’s dance style is demonstrated in a Giga which barely touches the floor, so light is his touch on the keyboard. The second grouping of variations has its finale in a robust performance of the Variatio 10 Fughetta. Central to the next group is the expressive Variatio 13, in which the little inner rubati which Pienaar uses make the performance seem that much more reflective and yes, introverted. The sound appears almost to want to stay within the case of the piano, rather than broadcast to the last row of an invisible audience. This is not to say the playing is timid, but you could equally imagine this as a clavichord performance. Variatio 14 blows away the mood created in a horizontal shower of sparkling notes, again making it a sort of prelude to the gently eloquent lines of Variatio 15, which concludes another ‘block’ within Pienaar’s structuring of the piece.
 
The conjoining of variations is a feature of a slow, almost tentative sounding Variatio 20, which serves as a launching point for an arguable too swift and brutal Variatio 21, which goes at a speed too fast for our minds to keep up. The expressive highlights of Variatio 21, 22 and 25 are all done marvellously, though without extremes of slowness or attempts to seek too far beyond Bach’s notes beyond what is already so miraculous on the page. Pienaar does dive for pearls, but not in a disproportionate sense – no need for extra breathing apparatus, though the atmosphere is breathtaking. He writes of the ‘return home’ of the Quodlibet in the way that “the use of folk songs suggests quite literally a return to shared ancestral roots.” In this way the final repeat of the Aria is more of a coda and a release, the feeling of which is palpably expressed by Daniel Ben-Pienaar.
 
As a bonus to the Goldberg Variations we are given a continuous passacaglia version of the Fourteen Canons BWV 1087, which are based on the first eight bass notes of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations. I’ve been intrigued by these little gems for a while now, but while Pienaar’s more lively moments are good you have to get used to his overly straight opening and an occasional over-prominence of the bass line in places. If you want to discover these fascinating canons have a listen to the Hänssler Bach Edition Musikalisches Opfer CD 92.133 which, along with the canons BWV 1072-78 is the version which convinced me that J.S. Bach was one of the first minimalist composers, even to the point of momentarily confounding our reviewer. Pienaar’s programme concludes with a lovely prayer-like performance of Bist du bei mir from Bach’s Anna Magdalena Notebook, the source of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, or at least where it sees its first appearance in Bach’s manuscripts.
 
To conclude, this is a superbly expressive and atmospheric recording of the Goldberg Variations. One may not quite agree with the occasional extremes of tempo, but there is little doubting the jigsaw-puzzle accuracy and attention to detail with which Daniel-Ben Pienaar has formed his shaping of this masterpiece. Subsequent to my review of the Mozart sonatas I was contacted with regard to the piano sound, which one commentator found rather ‘harsh, full of reverb, somewhat lacking in definition’. I’m still quite happy with the sound quality of this, though I partially take the point about the reverb and definition. This Bach was recorded at the same location and the reverb is less by comparison; the instrument that touch closer to the microphones, something which can make all the difference. It’s perhaps not quite ‘demonstration’ piano sound with a little more mid-range bloom than makes for perfection, but is still very good.
 
Dominy Clements
 
Expressive, atmospheric, intelligent performance.