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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV988 (1742) [75:50]
Charles Rosen (piano)
rec. June 1967 at 30th Street Studio, New York City,
Presto CD
SONY SBK48173 [75:50]

Charles Rosen (1927-2012) was a remarkably gifted man, an expert on, among other things, French literature and art, and also a perceptive and witty writer on music. Yet what he always wanted to do most was to play the piano, which he thought one could only do satisfactorily by taking up the career of a concert pianist. He had a distinguished career as a performer but in his later years became better known for a series of books, of which The Classical Style and The Romantic Generation have become established classics in their field. However, the best of his recordings are also of lasting value, and this version of the Goldbergs is certainly one of them.

Rosen’s reputation as a scholar might suggest that his performance would be overly didactic. This is not the case at all. In fact, the first thing that strikes one about this recording is the great variety of moods it encompasses. He has a clear conception of each variation, and my notes identify, for example, variation 3 as wistful, 9 as mournful and 24 as pastoral. But the dominant mood, which runs throughout the whole performance is that of playfulness: serious playfulness, but playfulness.

I do not know what edition of the work Rosen used, but I followed in the well-known one by Ralph Kirkpatrick, which offers realisations of the many ornaments which Bach notated using abbreviations (as well as a discussion of the issue in the Preface). Rosen seems to be following this fairly closely – or coming to very similar conclusions on his own account – and he occasionally varies the ornamentation in the repeats, all of which he plays. He once wrote that this work ‘represents the art of ornamentation at the highest point it ever reached.’ He also varies the repeats sometimes in other ways, for example by bringing out different parts of the polyphonic web or adopting a different touch.

The next thing to say is that he is a superb technician. The interweaving lines are always clearly voiced, and this includes the numerous passages where the hands cross or interlock. The Goldbergs were written for a harpsichord with two manuals, so playing them on the piano – a practice Rosen stoutly defended – involves challenges which can be evaded with two keyboards. The fast variations go like the wind when required, but never degenerate into a gabble, and every phrase is shaped and thought about. In the four variations towards the end, numbers 26 to 29, he exults in their virtuosity and provides a splendidly exciting lead in to the final Quodlibet. And the reprise of the Aria at the end is subtly different from its initial statement at the beginning: slightly slower, more meditative and elegantly poised.

As for the slower variations, Rosen is not a player who seeks profundity by slow speeds. Variation 25, commonly known as the Black Pearl, is the big test of this and he offers a performance which is poised, sensitive and beautifully shaped without being sentimental.

This recording was made in 1967 and first came out in a three vinyl disc set of Bach late keyboard works, which also contained The Art of Fugue and the two Ricercars from The Musical Offering. This was never reissued as such on CD, but Sony brought out the Goldbergs in their Essential Classics series, which was in print for a long time from them and is now available again from Presto. The sound is a little shallow by present-day standards but the ear soon adjusts and you get so caught up in the momentum of the performance that you cease to notice it. The sleevenote has the original essay by a German scholar, but enthusiasts should look up Rosen’s own discussion of the work, in his essay on ‘The Keyboard Music of Bach and Handel’ in his book Critical Entertainments. In it he says ‘The elegance of the Goldberg Variations is its glory: it is the most worldly of Bach’s achievements.’ He also says that ‘Except for the St Matthew Passion, in no other work is the depth of Bach’s spirit so easily accessible and its significance so tangible.’

I must admit that this work, in this recording, has long been a desert island disc of mine. Whatever other versions of the Goldbergs you may have, and those by Murray Perahia and Beatrice Rana immediately come to mind, this will always hold an honoured place and it is wonderful that it is available again.

Stephen Barber

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