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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations [110:05]
Marco Salcito (guitar)
rec. March 2014, P.I.M.S. Studios di Vasto, Switzerland.
DYNAMIC RECORDS CDS 7699/1-2 [52:14 + 58:11]

Bach's Goldberg Variations is one of my favourite pieces of music. I have about thirty different versions, played on harpsichord, piano, clavichord, organ and guitar; and even a couple of Sitkovetsky's arrangement of the work for string trio. There are a few I don't have: I've spotted recordings of the Goldbergs on harp, and several by various instrumental ensembles. This is a work that can survive transcription, and can bear performance on various instruments.
 
So I was intrigued to spot a new recording on guitar, an instrument that I feel works well with this piece. Having previously reviewed one such recording - by József Eötvös, in 2003, I was curious as to how guitarist Marco Salcito would approach the work.
 
From the start, I was struck by how much this recording plods. Salcito seems to have no sense of timing, and the prospect of listening to one hour and fifty minutes - yes, this may be the longest recording of the Goldbergs ever, more than twice the time of the Eötvös recording for guitar - seemed unattractive. The tempo drags; even from the opening aria, I felt that there was no movement is this performance. The Goldbergs need to sound vibrant. It's music that should make one dance; here, it sounds like a student's recital, trying desperately to get all the notes right.
 
Salcito's playing in the highest register simply isn't good; listen to the high notes in variation 8, for example, where the notes sound tinny. Variation 8 is actually a good example of what's wrong. It seems that the guitarist is struggling to maintain the tempo, and that the complexity of the arrangement is too much for him to handle. In variation 9, the guitarist loses track of the tempo again, and this continues throughout.
 
By the time I got to the slogging variation 12, I couldn't take any more. I skipped ahead to the overture, variation 16, and there, at the beginning, the guitarist has some sense of the music. Alas, once the opening section passes, he falls back into the plodding rhythms and confused playing that I heard earlier. Could the sublime variation 25 sound good in the hands of this guitarist? At nearly ten minutes, it's a slow, meditative piece, which is, for many, the heart of the Goldberg Variations. Since the tempo for this variation can be much freer, Salcito plays fairly well, but that's not enough to save this disc.
 
The liner-notes mention something curious that motivated the guitarist's playing. He "tried to keep an ideal 'tactus', that of my heartbeat at rest (53 on the metronome) throughout the Variations. This is one of the most questionable reasons to record at a given tempo that I can imagine. Whatever motivated this odd decision certainly ruined this recording.
 
It's rare that I hear a recording that is this lugubrious and disappointing. I strongly suggest avoiding this disc.
 
Kirk McElhearn
 
Masterwork Index: Goldberg variations


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