Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV988
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
rec. 1992, Bavaria Musikstudios, Munich
TV Format NTSC 16:9, Sound PCM Stereo, Language (bonus) English, Region Code 0 (Worldwide)
EUROARTS DVD 2066778 [100:00]
Barenboim recorded the Goldberg Variations on CD at a performance given in the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires in October 1989 [Erato/WEA 229245468-4]. This DVD doesn't document that performance: it comes from a later studio performance from Bavarian Music Studios in Munich in 1992. The salient features however remain. The unshowy, direct camera work allows one access to Barenboim's impressive mechanism. Thus we can see him 'front on' or, often, from beneath the keyboard as it were, looking up at him in action, the better to focus on the weight and deployment of his fingers.
This is important because in this work he has invariably sought to employ the modern piano's full range of tone and weight. He doesn't countenance any harpsichord imitation - doubtless he would retort that if you want to turn a piano into a harpsichord you should play the harpsichord in the first place. Thus if you seek the dynamism and clarity of erstwhile famous practitioners (let's say, without surprise, Glenn Gould) you will be looking in the wrong place. Yet Barenboim doesn't also much resemble performers like Schiff or Perahia either. Barenboim's aesthetic is richer, more cushioned, less concerned with revealing contrapuntal lines and rather more overtly in bringing romanticised characterisation to each variation. To this end he plays the repeats but seldom varies the playing, shying away from ornamentation. The promotion of colour, timbral depth, and strong use of the pedal is allied to an occasional use of what I'd call the cadential rubato school of pianism where rallentandi meets the honeyed tone of the old school musician.
Barenboim's refusal to indulge is in many respects laudable but the effect, to those yet to hear him in the work, is one of unalloyed indulgence of the full range of the modern piano. It's an orchestral approach, one that summons up high trumpets and oboes, as much as cellos and basses. Within these clear aesthetic parameters, the performance can be savoured as a technically assured and convincing examination of a rich sound world. To those unsympathetic to this Furtwänglerisation of the variations, this approach will remain unconvincing. Taking the great Black Pearl variation to nine minutes, imposing flirtatious little trills elsewhere, solidly thumping or comically answering contrapuntal lines, rolling chords at the end of the last variation and holding down the pedal for the aria da capo - these are some of the corollaries of Barenboim's approach. In an eight-minute bonus he talks of the illusionary quality of the piano to conjure sound worlds such as the ones outlined above. It is a manifesto of sorts and explains his approach to the work, and the rhythmic freedom and timbral breadth that he finds in - some would say imposes on - the variations.
Jonathan Woolf  
Unalloyed indulgence in the full range of the modern piano. 

Masterwork Index: Goldberg Variations