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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 [76:24]
Zhu Xiao-Mei (piano)
rec. Théâtre et Auditorium de Poitiers (TAP), France, dates not given.

Zhu Xiao-Mei’s recording of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier on the Mirare label was much enjoyed by Stephen Greenbank (see review) and so I was intrigued to hear what she would bring to the Goldberg Variations. This is a new recording and not to be confused with Xiao-Mei’s 2008 Mirare recording, and looking at the timings the first impression is of a generally broader view of the music.

I have of course had a listen to Xiao-Mei’s earlier version of the Goldberg Variations, and can see that there is much to admire in her playing. Her touch here is sturdy rather than magical, though with a great deal of clarity in the counterpoint to go along with detailed dynamic contrasts. ‘Enjoyable rather than truly involving’ would be one way to sum this up, and I didn’t find it something that would be likely to supplant favourite recordings such as that by Angela Hewitt or the controversial but seminal Glenn Gould.

This new Accentus recording has a different atmosphere. Slightly more dry though very well balanced as a recording and a little more close and intimate with the instrument, this is reflected in a more confiding and less imposing touch from Xiao-Mei. This is now less about the piano, less about technique and interpretations, more about the notes on the page and their link to us and their creator. These are subjective and perhaps even tenuous responses, but at the very least I certainly find this recording a more valuable experience than the earlier version. Xiao-Mei keeps her willingness to be just elastic enough in terms of rubato to allow phrases to breathe without taking us too far into something which interferes with Bach’s idiom, but in terms of allowing breathing space, her dynamics hold something in reserve even at peaks.

Zhu Xiao-Mei has performed the Goldberg Variations ‘several hundred times’ since her first recording, and this shows in the new one. The booklet notes have an interview between her and Michel Mollard in which Xiao-Mei emphasises communication with her audience over technique, and points toward the relationship of the work’s cyclical nature and its connection with life and death. Making a parallel with a quote from Laozi, “The return is the movement of Tao” as it is in the return of the Aria. “…it is also about the idea that there is no ending. And so there is hope.”

Lyricism wasn’t much of a feature of Xiao-Mei’s first recording, and she doesn’t go in for extremely long lines here, though beautifully quiet moments such as the Variation 13. A 2 Clav. have an exquisite expressiveness in this recording. Xiao-Mei’s melodic approach always has more of a rhetorical touch, as in the articulation of Variatio 15. Canone alla Quinta a 1 Clav. which puts in quite a lot of vertical ‘air’ without breaking the lines beyond comprehensibility. This is certainly a valid approach and highly intriguing, though at times one might prefer a more relaxed sense of horizontal flow. This is also one place in which a feature of her playing emerges in common with the earlier recording: a kind of expressive ‘hesitancy’ which momentarily interrupts the rhythm – something to which you may or may not warm. More flowing is the Variatio 21. Canone alla Settima a 1 Clav. setting up a musical narrative of considerable but compact complexity – the subtle transition to Variatio 22 also being quite stunning.

After my lukewarm feelings about Zhu Xiao-Mei’s first Goldberg Variations I have to admit being fairly bowled over by this new recording. Even aspects which might take a little getting used to can easily become attractive little quirks if you allow your empathy with the performance as a whole to take over. We get so many recordings of the Goldberg Variations these days that in the end they somewhat brutally tend to boil down to ‘keepers’ or ‘rejects’. This one is very much a ‘keeper’.

Dominy Clements



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