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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV988 [78.55]
Pietro De Maria (piano)
rec. 5 & 6 November 2016, Auditorium del Suffragio, Lucca
DECCA 4815087 [78:55]

It was with his acclaimed Chopin recordings that Pietro De Maria established his reputation, and the Polish composer makes up the bulk of his discography. Of late, he has turned his attention to Bach, and over the last two years has taken both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier into the studio (review ~ review). I was fortunate enough to review them, and each made a profound impression. He remains with Bach for his latest release, and what better follow-up than the Goldberg Variations.

As soon as I heard the innocence, simplicity, humanity and floating quality of the opening theme, I was confident this would be a harbinger of things to come. I was not disappointed. De Maria’s formidable technique and intelligent, cultivated musicianship are all harnessed to render a performance of spiritual depth, where his lofty vision is eminently realized. He observes repeats and tempi feel just right, with natural rhythmic freedom. Ornamentation, which can often be problematic, is discreet, tasteful and, most importantly, idiomatic. He often ornaments the repeated sections, which add an element of variety and contrast.

So, what are the high points? I’m taken by the confidence and gleaming virtuosity displayed in Var. 14 and Var. 29, two of the more technically challenging. Var. 4 struts out with bounding confidence, whilst Var. 15 has a restful demeanour. Var. 16 begins with an elegantly paced French Overture. The second part is a fugal section, which De Mario crisply articulates with stylish refinement. In Var. 17, the repeated section is taken an octave higher, which I’ve never heard done before, but it works very well. The trills of Var. 28 have a luminous bell-like quality. The famous “Black Pearl’ Variation (no.25) is heartfelt, sincere and dreamy. Attractive are the dark sonorities achieved by some adept pedaling. Var. 30 gives one a feeling of reaching one's destination, with a determined sense of joy. At the reprise of the theme there’s a gripping awareness of inevitability.

As with his previous Bach recordings, De Maria has opted for the Auditorium del Suffragio, Lucca. It provides a sympathetic acoustic, conducive to Bach playing, as it facilities the clarity this music so much requires. The Steinway used has a rich, warm tone and is well-regulated and has been expertly voiced. The pianist has provided his own detailed analysis and guide to the work, including a diagrammatic plan, which I found very enlightening.

The Goldberg Variations are now regarded as one of the staples of the solo piano repertoire. I have my favourites, too many to list in full, but Glenn Gould’s two versions, recorded at the beginning and end of his career, and conceptually very different, will always hover near the top of the list. There's also the lesser publicised Tatiana Nikolayeva live version from the Berwald Hall Stockholm, 9 September 1987 (Bluebell ABCD 043). I tend to prefer the Goldbergs played on the modern piano, as the instrument provides a wider colouristic range and greater expressive scope, but the harpsichord version recently released by Mahan Esfahani on DG is impressive on all counts. This latest traversal by Pietro De Maria will be another one I will be reaching for from the shelves, regularly.

Stephen Greenbank



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