Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 [77:30]
14 Canons on the First Eight Notes of the Bass of the Aria of the Goldberg Variations, BWV 1097 [11:56]
The German Songs used in Variation 30 (Quodlibet) [12:22]
Céline Frisch (harpsichord)
Café Zimmerman, Dominique Visse (counter-tenor)
rec. 2000/01, Chapelle de l’Hôpital Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours, Paris, France.
ALPHA CLASSICS 303 [77:30 + 24:50]
Very nicely recorded, this is a Goldberg Variations with extras. This recording originally appeared in 2001 as Céline Frisch’s debut for Alpha with all its double-CD added bells and whistles but this apparently didn’t reach any of the MWI reviewers. Frisch has gone on to record widely as a member of and soloist with the excellent early music ensemble Café Zimmerman. The re-release ‘Alpha Classics Collection’ has this as volume 4 in its distinctive red livery – vegans please note, the cover illustration is not of Autumn leaves.

The opening Aria from Frisch is something of a Marmite version. You may love its floating qualities, but the Erroll Garner right-hand delay can be distracting. Spreading chords is an accepted technique for harpsichord playing, but this vertical de-coupling in a two-part piece is rather exposed. Frisch’s vertical rhythmic crispness is in fact a strong feature of most of the variations. She doesn’t go in for mannered stretching of phrases for expressive effect, keeping a strict pulse from within which there is just enough elasticity to avoid things becoming mechanical. Tempi are often swifter than you might expect, with the dancing notes of Variatio 7 or Variatio 19 for instance creating a bracing impression. We’re leafing through the Goldberg Variations at pace, but with repeats observed there is time for the mind to accommodate and assimilate. I wouldn’t say this is a rushed sounding performance, but if you are used to the more extreme slowness occasionally delivered by some piano players then the forward flow of even more measured pieces such as Variatio 13 will feel a little more busy than usual – again with that right-hand delay occasionally introducing the odd moment of reduced clarity. This is also a feature in Variatio 15 that you may or may not like. I can see what Frisch is aiming at, but personally find the result a bit tiresome after a while.

That stylistic performance detail aside, this is a very good recording of the Goldberg Variations. Frisch doesn’t overly go in for grandeur, but where the music demands as in the Variatio 16 Ouverture she gives us plenty of orchestral richness from her instrument. There is no lack of contrast and there is a great deal of beauty even given the often swift tempi. The elegance of Variatio 21 is gorgeous, and that ‘Black Pearl’ Variatio 25 is deeply expressed, those spread notes coming more into their own with that two-part accompaniment to Bach’s awe-inspiring melody. This can still become a bit much, but having come this far and become immersed in the performance the thought of metaphorically stopping the car and turning back wasn’t really a consideration by this stage.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations has become a staple with pianists, but there is no shortage of good harpsichord recordings available. Steven Divine on Chandos is very good (review), as are Trevor Pinnock, Aapo Häkkinen and, if you want an in-depth education on the work, Colin Booth. This is to name just a few that are available and that have come my way and remained memorable. I’ve heard versions where the vocal parts of the Quodlibet were sung, but the 14 Canons BWV 1087 are more often the domain of complete Bach box sets. The string players of Café Zimmerman show us how much fun and how much expressive music is to be found here, each canon played without much embellishment but with a palpable sense of respectful enjoyment. There are indeed also some magical moments, such as the sotto voce Canon A 5 on track 12. With added instruments, the songs integrated by Bach into his Quodlibet are given unrestrained and characterfully folksy performances by counter-tenor Dominique Visse. He is to be heard in more than one part of his remarkable vocal range, so that he seems to be in a duet with himself during La Bergamasca.

All in all this wouldn’t be my absolute tip-top choice for the Goldberg Variations on harpsichord, but with the added value of the Canons and songs this release does have many attractive qualities. Céline Frisch is absolutely a top performer and this is a very fine recording indeed. You will have to decide for yourself if the Erroll-Garner-effect slow music works or not.

Dominy Clements

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