Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 [76:44]
Joël Pontet (harpsichord)
rec. April 2010 Studio Sequenza de Montreuil, France
SAPHIR LVC 1166 [76:44]
If you had to choose one definitive recording of the Goldberg Variations which would it be? This question is impossible to answer as the countless number of recordings is incomparable due to the different instrumentations, historical view points and even editions of the music used. How can you compare the sonorities of a 21st century Steinway Concert Grand piano to the vibrancy of a 17th century style harpsichord? Frenchman Joël Pontet could have chosen either, as he studied both at the Paris Conservatoire, and this time he chose the harpsichord. It is easier to compare recordings on similar instruments, so it is to other recordings made on strung keyboard instruments that the comparison shall be made.
This recording was made on a copy of a Rückers harpsichord by Marc Ducornet in 2006. There are no notes in the CD booklet about this instrument, but one can assume that this Flemish instrument has two manuals with an 8’ and 4’ stop on the lower manual and 8’ stop and buff on the upper manual. The sound of these instruments is quite unmistakable for their rich and balanced tone, and it is easy to hear how carefully the upper and lower registers complement each other, especially on the upper manual of this instrument. This is particularly noticeable in Variation 13 when the buff stop is used and the clarity of voicing is truly exposed.
An appropriate comparison to this recording is that recording in the late 1990s by Pieter-Jan Belder (Brilliant Classics 92217/11), as it is made on a very similar instrument. The Rückers harpsichord used by Belder is by Cornelis Bom. The first difference between these two recordings is that Pontet makes far greater use of the 4’ register on the lower manual of his harpsichord. This gives a more brittle and electric sound to his playing, making the first variation full of life and energy. The Aria and first variation on Belder’s recording are played on 8’ alone, which gives his playing a more organic development and allows the listener to hear the subtleties of his playing more easily. Throughout the recording, Pontet makes a great deal more registration changes than Belder, which act to engage the listener on the surface as well as to characterise the variations quite specifically. This is often the case with French trained keyboard players, whereas Dutch and German players are more restrained in their tonal use. Belder’s more reserved use of the different sounds available to him means that the listener has to be more aware of tempi, articulation and phrasing in order to understand the performer’s interpretation. That is not to say that there is a lack of delicate phrasing in Pontet’s performance, there is. Variation 10, the fugetta, makes use of a large variety of subtle articulation; the touch is varied to represent the different moods of the keys which the music passes through, this is highly sophisticated playing. Both recordings score equally highly on the quality of performance, instrument and recording. The overriding difference: where Pontet is adventurous, Belder is thoughtful.
This recording has its own voice and its own place amongst other recordings of this truly remarkable work. Pontet clearly knows what he wants us to hear and isn’t afraid to use all of his skill and the whole textural range of his instrument to demonstrate this. Occasionally the sound of the instrument detracts from the phrasing that is there and the 4’ can become quite tiring to listen to. Pontet’s articulation and phrasing ideas are so clear, perhaps it would be beneficial to change the sound less often and let his performance speak for itself. The sound quality of the recording is so good that it is better than listening live and the booklet notes are adequate, if not a little brief. Overall, due to the vast numbers of available recordings, this wouldn’t make a list of the top 5 recordings of the Goldberg Variations on harpsichords but would probably make it into the top 20, which is actually quite high praise.
Accomplished, yet occasionally tiring, playing.
Masterwork Index: Goldberg Variations