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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations (arr. Parker Ramsay)
Parker Ramsay (harp)
rec. 2019, Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

I’ve previously observed on these pages that Bach’s music is indestructible, and the Goldberg Variations, in particular, seems to be able to withstand any sort of arrangement that’s thrown at them.

Parker Ramsay isn’t the first harpist to record them, but his is an interesting case, not only because this is his own arrangement, but because he didn’t first come to the public’s attention as a harpist. Instead, he was one of those elite young men to be awarded the post of organ scholar of King’s College, Cambridge; the first American, as it happens, and he held the post from 2010-2013. On the one hand that explains why his arrangement is appearing on this label and in this soaring acoustic; on the other it just underlines to us mere mortals how insanely talented those organ scholars really are.

He seems to focus mostly on the harp now – there are only so many hours in the day, after all! – and I enjoyed his arrangement because it meddles so little with Bach. He’s not the first harpist to record it, of course, and several recordings exist, though Sylvain Blassel took perhaps the most courageous step of all by performing them on the harp exactly as Bach wrote them for the keyboard, with neither transcription nor arrangement.

However, the structural problems of Ramsay’s recording turned me off it rather strongly, I’m sorry to report. The problem definitely isn’t the playing; that’s consistently beautiful throughout. In fact, the sound of this disc is bewitching. The harp sitting alone in that vast space could feel quite isolated, and there’s an extent to which it sounds rather lonely and withdrawn. However, the recording engineers have done a great job of putting our ears close to the instrument’s delicacy within that great space; a space which should envelop it but doesn’t. This, therefore, encourages thoughtful listening and will lead your ear to pick up things afresh in the music in a manner that I found really engaging.

Unavoidably, however, there’s an element of aural fog that hovers around the faster sections. The lines of the first canon start to feed back into one another in the chapel’s echo so that the recorded picture loses clarity, and that trends sets in for lots of the variations where the semiquavers do the heavy lifting. Several of the variations inadvertently come close to that showpiece glissando flourish for which harps are so well known, but are actually among the easiest items in their arsenal. Listen to variation 11, with its descending cascades, to see one example that’s particularly vulnerable to this.

Some of the variations sound utterly lovely. The folksy lilt of variation 7 gives it a fairytale quality that I found very winning; there’s an innocent music-box quality to variation 19, and there’s a sense of exquisite perfection in variation 22.

The problems set in with the Ramsay’s structural grasp of the piece, though it’s perfectly possible that his hands were tied by practicalities here. After all, the nature of the instrument means that most harpists are going to take a slower approach to the Golbergs than most keyboard players, and that means that the work is at risk of stretching out to an unwieldy length. Remedial measures have to be taken, therefore. He (just) manages to squeeze the whole work onto one CD, but he does that through an inconsistent approach to repeats. Mostly he repeats the A section but not the B section for each variation, which is irritating in itself if a structural balance is important to you; but he makes things worse by failing to be completely consistent with it. Some variations repeat the B section too, and the Black Pearl (variation 25) is played straight through with no repeats, as is the final da capo aria.

This sounds like a small thing but for some, including me, it becomes very important because it unbalances the work and suggests that Bach’s carefully constructed structure is being sacrificed to the necessities of a CD running time (though that can’t be proved as the motivation, of course). That means that, if Ramsay ever did have an overall sense of structural narrative, it’s lost in the mix, and that leaks out elsewhere, too. Variation 29, for example, with its elemental swagger, cries out for a great burst of energy as the last variation before the Quodlibet, but here it feels like just another step along the road, and the Quodlibet itself is taken so slowly that it sounds soporific and unfocused.

Nor does the instrument showcase a huge dynamic range, a suffused mezzo piano being the norm. That’s also true for a harpsichord, of course, but it appears to be Ramsay’s choice, and I didn’t like it.

So this isn’t a disc for me, despite the beauty of the playing and the packaging, which contains an impressively thorough analytical essay on the Goldbergs by Bach specialist Burhkard Schwalbach. If you need the Goldbergs on the harp then proceed with caution: you might decide that Sylvain Blassel, who takes no repeats and has a more snug recording, is the man for you.

Simon Thompson

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