Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV988* [38:27]
Overture (Partita) in b minor in the French manner, BWV831** [25:28]
French Suite No.5, BWV816** [16:28]
Glenn Gould (piano)*
rec. 1955. ADD.
András Schiff (piano)**
rec. 1978. DDD.
There have been so many reissues of Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldbergs that you can take your pick. The main rivals to the current release are on Naxos Historical 8.111247 (not available in the USA and several other parts of the world) and Sony (details below).
Jonathan Woolf offered such an apt description of the Sony reissue of the 1955 and 1981 recordings of this music that I can’t better what he says about the 1955 version:
Gould’s Goldberg Variations are full of grace and animation; there are times, it’s true, when measured against his later performance the youthful one can seem precipitate and too energised for clarity of articulation, though this is a relative matter. But there is magnificent drama and sometimes a sense of euphoric abandon hard to resist, a sense in the final variations of the arch of the music taken in a single span, a sense of flux engendered through passionate continuity. (See full review here.)
That Sony 3-CD release remains available (S3K87703, around £12 in the UK) and there are also inexpensive single-CD versions of the 1955 set in the Original Jacket edition on 88697147452 9, around £4.25 in the UK), also on 5174792 (around £5.25 in the UK). offer a download of the Sony release of the expanded 1955 recording – with two short fillers from The Well-tempered Clavier and 12 minutes of studio out-takes for £2.99 – here. ($8.99 from – here.)
If you wonder how Alto can squeeze the complete Goldbergs plus two other works onto one CD, the answer lies in the timings in the heading: by omitting all repeats and taking most of the variations at quite a lick, Gould manages to complete the whole work in just over 38 minutes. Compare that with a time of over 91 minutes from Matthew Halls on a recent Linn recording, with every repeat observed and the music given due weight where appropriate (CKD356 – see March 2010 Download Roundup) and you have the two extremes.
Yet, different as they are, and though I’m not easy to please in recordings of this music – not too happy with Bob van Asperen on Virgin, for example: see review – I like both Gould and Halls. 48 seconds for Variation 30 ought to sound too fast, when Matthew Halls takes 2:03 and Angela Hewitt 2:08, but from Gould it doesn’t. Mention of Angela Hewitt should lead me to make detailed comparisons, since Gould and Hewitt are the only two pianists to whose Bach I consistently respond, preferring to hear his music on the harpsichord, as from Halls. I’m going to duck the comparison, however, because I can’t logically defend liking these three very different performances – I just do.
Hewitt’s Goldbergs are available separately on a mid-price Hyperion 30 reissue (CDA30002) or as part of the 15-CD set which I made my Download of the Month (CDS44421/35 – see October 2010 Download Roundup).
Whichever version of Gould 1955 you choose, the sound is inevitably a little dry but this Alto transfer sounds as good as the Naxos – if anything, there’s a little less top, but that makes the sound seem more rounded and it probably also explains why there’s less background noise, though that’s not a serious problem with the Naxos. If these tracks are, as Alto claim, in stereo, there’s very little spatial information on them, though that’s not much of an issue with a solo instrument.
It’s not inappropriate that Alto have coupled Gould and Schiff in Bach; as the quotation on the back of the CD reminds us, Schiff was impressed by Gould’s playing which he found so different from everyone else’s. Schiff’s own Goldbergs are cut from very different cloth – Paul Shoemaker, reviewing his more recent recording sees it as his ultimate assault on his predecessor (ECM New Series 1825 – see review and review by a disappointed John Portwood) – but the coupling is still apt.
Alto credit Schiff’s two items to Vanguard originals. I don’t remember his recording for that label, however; the first time that I came across him was in the French Suite No.5, as included here, on the Decca Ace of Diamonds label (SDD prefix). Perhaps that recording was licensed from Vanguard; though Schiff has subsequently recorded for Decca and ECM, I note that Vanguard have themselves released Schiff’s BWV831 and 816 along with the Italian Concerto, as on that SDD release, in their Historical Series (ATM-CD-1893). Whatever the provenance, the reviewers were mostly understandably enthusiastic from the outset. The fact that Alto quote from an enthusiastic 1980 review of that SDD release strengthens my presumption that these tracks are from the same recording.
Like Hewitt, Schiff is about as good as pianists come in Bach; both play with such delicacy that I would love to hear them play his music on the harpsichord or fortepiano, especially as Schiff performs Mozart on what may be the composer’s own Walter instrument. I’m sure that he has his reasons for playing Bach on the piano. In any case, I’m pleased that Alto chose to complete their CD with his stylish recordings of these two works in the French style.
I know that my pleasure will not be universally shared: Schiff’s way with Bach is on the fast side. In BWV 831 and 816, however, his tempi are not markedly out of line with for example, Richard Egarr (EMI, harpsichord) and Angela Hewitt (Hyperion, piano). The recordings of these tracks, too, sound much better than the Gould.
The presentation of the Alto reissue is, as usual, minimal, with individual timings for the separate tracks but none for the three works overall – I got my information about the overall timings for the Gould from the Naxos Historical version and about Schiff from the Vanguard release.
If you’re looking for a safe prime recommendation for the Goldberg Variations, it has to be Angela Hewitt: I know that there are those who dislike Gould’s manner and I’m sure that there are also those who will find Halls too long at 91 minutes, but I’ve yet to meet any lover of Bach who didn’t admire Hewitt. Her recording comes at mid price, so although it’s more expensive than Gould on Alto, Naxos or Sony, the difference is not that great. Those prepared to be adventurous should also go for Gould as well – after all, the CD will cost you only around a fiver and you get some fine playing from Schiff thrown in as well. There’s no need to hesitate.
Brian Wilson
Unless you’re averse to either Gould’s or Schiff’s Bach, there’s no need to hesitate at the price.