Johann Sebastian Bach's Aria with Diverse Variations is frequently referred
as the pinnacle of his artistic achievement. As such it has been the subject
all manner of interpretation over the centuries, countless of which have
recorded for posterity to cherish and, sometimes, to steer clear of. Highly
accounts, like those of Glenn Gould (on a seemingly infinite number of
Daniel-Ben Pienaar (Avie AV2235) and Nick Van Bloss (Nimbus Alliance NI6136)
rub shoulders with sometimes baffling arrangements for anything from the
(Janne Rättyä, Ondine ODE12092), viol consort or duo (Fretwork,
Mundi HMU907560), harp (Catrin Finch, DG 4778097), to saxophone quartet
SQ, Kontrapunkt 32330) and marimba (Pius Cheung, private release in 2006).
there is Max Reger's 'improvement' for piano duo (Yaara Tal and Andreas
Sony Classical 88697526962), Busoni's outrageous reinvention (Claudius
MDG 312 1323-2), Dmitry Sitkovetsky's arrangement for strings (Orfeo
Karlheinz Essl's for string trio and live electronics (Preiser PR90753) and
perhaps most notoriously - the Jacques Loussier Trio's jazz re-imagining
CD83479) and Uri Caine's Frankensteinian monstrosity (Winter & Winter
054-2), about which the less said, the better.
In more legitimate territory, there have been quite a few organ
recordings, with many more on the harpsichord, including some indisputable
classics from the likes of Wanda Landowska (Naxos Historical 8.110313),
Steven Devine (Chandos CHAN0780), Richard Egarr (Harmonia Mundi
HMU907425-26), Christopher Rousset (Decca E4757079) and Andreas Staier
(Harmonia Mundi HMC902058). Yet though Staier for one has likened playing
the Variations on the piano to "attempting to square the circle", the
overwhelming majority of recordings have always been by pianists. Of these,
it may be noted, many blithely omit the numerous repeats, effectively
cutting twenty minutes or so of music. Among the piano recordings, Murray
Perahia's on Sony Classical (SK89243) and Angela Hewitt's on Hyperion
(CDA67305) are two of the very best - as close to natural, intimate and
reflective as the grand piano can make Bach sound. For the libertarian
listener, an enterprising new release from Brilliant Classics gives four
versions of the Variations on four discs (for the price of one!):
harpsichord, piano, organ and string trio (94621).
Though Bach wrote the Variations patently for a double-manual
harpsichord, the clavichord is thought to have been his own preferred
instrument for this work. His celebrated son Carl Philipp Emanuel was
moreover one of its leading apostles. Yet there have been puzzlingly few
recordings on this gentle, venerable instrument - this partial discogra
lists none. Benjamin-Joseph Steens on Evil Penguin in 2010 (EPRC007)
leads the tiny field, with József Gát on Hungaroton (HRC1001)
and Jaroslav Tůma on ARTA Records (F1 0136) conspicuous by their lack
Israeli-born Michael Tsalka's new recording thus has plenty of elbow
room - not that this is in any way that sort of programme. Tsalka's
exquisite musicianship can be heard on two very recent Grand Piano volumes
dedicated to the marvellous sonatas of Daniel Gottlob Türk (GP627-28,
plays Türk on an array of historical keyboards - harpsichord, grand
piano, upright grand, spinet, fortepiano, tangent piano and clavichord -
giving some measure of the importance he attaches to authenticity.
On the present recording Tsalka can actually be heard on two
clavichords, both built by Sebastian Niebler after late-18th century models.
One has a "lyrical timbre", according to Tsalka, whilst the other is "more
robust". He switches between keyboards for the length of the recording,
often deciding on the spur of the moment which instrument to use for the
next variation. This is his "bow to the spirit of improvisation, freedom and
unbound imagination" of the music. Whether he would extend that empathy to
all of the interpretations listed above is an intriguing question.
At any rate, the alternations add a further layer of enjoyment to
Tsalka's handsome, intuitive readings. He demonstrates a masterly control of
dynamics, and is moreover thoroughly attentive to phrasing and tempi in a
way that totally explains J.S. and C.P.E.'s faith in the instrument.
Clavichord recordings are of necessity low-volume, in order to
minimise ambient noise - electrical hiss, instrumental action, breathing
sounds - but Paladino's engineers have made a reasonable job of ensuring
that no extreme demands are made on the listener's volume control, and that
effective timbral distortions are thus avoided.
The English-German booklet notes are not exactly voluminous, but
Tsalka's introductory and Joyce Lindorff's homage to Bach and Tsalka do at
least offer a brief glimpse into the performer's state of mind on
approaching this immense work. Curiously, Tsalka's bilingual biographies
contain certain mutually exclusive details. The CD cover says baldly
"goldberg variations" which, orthographic issues aside, is fair enough -
that is the name by which this work has come to be universally known. Yet
Johann Gottlieb Goldberg's association is apocryphal at best, originating,
as is frequently the case, in a rhetorical 19th-century biography. As Norman
Rubin writes in New Grove, "Forkel's famous story of the commissioning of
J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations [...] by Keyserlingk to be played by
Goldberg contains several errors of fact and must be doubted."
There is no doubt the sound of the clavichord is an acquired taste,
probably even more so than the harpsichord, but for those with an interest
in historical authenticity who wish to deepen their understanding and
appreciation of this keyboard masterpiece, Tsalka has much to tell.
Contact at artmusicreviews.co.uk
Masterwork Index: Goldberg