Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV988 (1741) [80:43]
Konstantin Lifschitz (piano)
rec. live, 2012, Große Saal Musikhochschule, Würzburg, Germany. DDD
ORFEO C864141A [80:43]

Obviously the main point of interest here for many will be a comparison between this recording and the famous one made eighteen years earlier by the same artist when he was only seventeen years old. While such comparisons are inevitable and indeed fascinating, a point-by-point comparative analysis might well obscure the merit per se of this live recital; both are superb but inevitably different given the passage of time.
Lifschitz is no longer an enfant terrible but despite not yet being forty he is now a distinguished Professor of Piano and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music. He has played these variations worldwide many times since that landmark, prize-winning recording for Denon (1994, CD-78961). It would be surprising if his current interpretation had not conformed to the expected pattern of morphing from the youthful exuberance of 1994 into a more mature and reflective mode. That is indeed just what has happened: speeds are now slightly less headlong, more momentary hesitations and refinements are in evidence and a generally cooler, more cerebral sensibility is manifest in his playing.

Not that his virtuosity is any less; Glenn Gould’s percussive style (see Masterwork Index - link in header) is still clearly an influence and the mechanical brilliance of the runs and speed of hand crossovers are as breathtaking as ever. In fact the penultimate Variation 29 is even faster here, the touch lighter and the execution more even, as are the trills in the preceding track. On the other hand, the young Lifschitz took Variation 20 in a more assertive, helter-skelter way which constituted a tour de force but is not perhaps as musical as the older artist’s version. Another noticeable development is that the predominantly cerebral and stately variations in the second half of the thirty are given decidedly more space and time. For many listeners, less impetuousness will equate to greater profundity.

The celebrated “Black Pearl”, Variation no. 25, seems to have undergone the greatest revision. It is here played much faster but its timing is considerably longer as Lifschitz includes the repeats which he omitted - in this movement only - first time around. It is more dynamic, less dreamy and thus more dramatic, in keeping with his overall approach in this later recording. It is almost as if the earlier version was a solo meditation while here we are hearing a dialogue between the lower, “masculine” left hand and the higher, “feminine” right.

The sound is excellent, with almost no audience noise apart from someone once dropping a clanger and a very minor bit of coughing.

Both recordings maintain a place of honour on my shelves, for the fluid, Romantic ardour of the first and the patrician mastery of the second. I would not care to choose between them.

Ralph Moore

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