Despite admiring its striking presentation, I was instantly irritated by this Capriccio release when I found that no overall timing was provided for the “Goldberg Variations”; why not? A few minutes poring over the miniscule typeface with a calculator provided me a figure of 55:56.
While knowing Barto's reputation for controversial interpretations, I much enjoyed his innovative recording of Rameau’s piano music, “A Basket of Wild Strawberries”, while nonetheless acknowledging that its freedom would not appeal to more traditional, conservative tastes; this recording, however, is something else again. The important thing to note here - and it is indicated in minuscule type on the back cover - is that Barto plays the edition by Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) which is really a revision so radical that modern listeners would hardly recognise it as an edition as such but more of a free re-write. The mannered hesitations and arbitrarily applied rubato immediately apparent in the opening aria set off alarm bells and they set the pattern for Barto's reproduction of Busoni’s intentions throughout. I say “throughout”, but in truth my patience was so sorely taxed ten after fifteen minutes of his shenanigans that I had completely lost interest and broke one of my cardinal reviewing rules of listening to a recording several times before converting my thoughts into written words and I have no desire to listen to this version again.
I can hear no musical rationale or internal logic to Barto’s constant pulling about of tempi combined with a peculiarity in the dynamics arising from his sudden, unaccountable diminutions in volume. There is little point in my citing specific examples of Barto’s manner as it is consistent through all thirty-two tracks. This wilful treatment betrays Baroque sensibilities and does little to enhance the integrity of music which demands a steady pulse and a sense of momentum rather than a persistent insistence upon reining in and alighting from the carriage in order to smell the flowers.
I shall return to either of Glenn Gould’s recordings, either of those by Konstantin Lifschitz, or recordings by Maria Yudina and Murray Perahia and leave this thoroughly perverse version to those who like it. However, those of a musicological bent might be interested to hear what Busoni thought it appropriate to do to Bach's masterpiece to make it "palatable" for concert audiences a hundred years ago.