The “Goldberg Variations”, a staple of the keyboard repertoire, are timeless. Over the years it has been recorded a multitude of times. Simply putting “Goldberg Variations” into a search engine leads one to a plethora of recordings. It was the piece that launched legendary pianist Glenn Gould’s international career.
This particular recording is the culmination of a project by keyboardist Michael Tsalka, whose goal is to present performances that are not only well informed but also profoundly musical. I must say that in this interpretation, Tsalka has been singularly successful. The first thing I noticed was that this was a performance by somebody who loved and understood Bach’s music very deeply indeed. Tsalka uses every resource at his disposal to put this across.
His tools in this instance are a pair of clavichords placed side by side - making this recording the first of its kind - both of which are based on late 18th Century instruments. Each one brings its own character to the table, the first being characterised by a dainty upper range and rich bass line, the second notable for its robust middle range, with upper notes that are solid and rounded. Tsalka explains - in the booklet, which is brief but very informative - that his deciding whether to play a variation on one instrument or the other was often a spur of the moment decision. I enjoyed the resulting spontaneity as it kept the music fresh at every turn.
The playing is wonderful throughout, the lines and phrasing crafted with a very high sense of musicianship. Each variation is invigorating in its approach and feels like a new piece. The playing and choice of instrument also provide us with a constant reminder of the underpinning bass line, creating a sense of unity over the disc as a whole. The performance is also a very intimate one, and its delicacy only serves to enhances this aspect.
The clavichords lack the clinical precision of a modern grand piano or the harpsichord, but to an extent this does not matter. This imprecision, though a blessing, could be thought at times to be a clever ruse - a more sceptical listener might say it is used to cover up potential mistakes. It also makes the performance somewhat overly percussive in places: I found Variatio 23 suffering from this to the point that it disturbed the music. In addition I found some ornaments - particularly the trills - to be quite stiff; is this down to the instrument or the player? The imprecision of the instrument makes this difficult to determine. It also makes this disc something I wouldn't recommend to someone listening to the Variations for the first time. This is definitely for the more advanced listener. That is not to say that it is not a good recording; it is very good. However, the use of the instrument fills this recording with the kind of nuance that could ward off a first-time listener.
The debate rages over whether the Variations sound better on the piano
or harpsichord. I believe this recording adds an interesting new angle
- that of the clavichord. Do I believe it superior to either of the
other instruments? No, but I believe it creates a new listening experience
worthy of attention.
Previous review: Byzantion
Masterwork Index: Goldberg variations