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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (1741) [184:33]
Studio [91:37] & live [92:56] recordings
Lang Lang (piano)
rec. 2020, live and studio, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin; St Thomas Church, Leipzig
Deluxe edition
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4819701 [4 CDs: 184:33]

In May this year I posted a survey of 33 recordings of the Goldberg Variations on piano, ending with more recommendations than usual – one historical, four live and no fewer than half a dozen studio recordings – reflecting my recognition of the fact that responses to different performance practices in this marvellous music are highly subjective and there seems always to be room for yet another interpretation. Had this latest glossy issue been available, I could not possibly have excluded it from that conspectus: Lang Lang is arguably the world’s most popular classical pianist; this work is a touchstone work for a “serious” pianist and his venture into this recorded repertoire must inevitably be measured as a mark of his maturation as an artist, especially he has in the past been the target of accusations from some quarters that his playing evinced flashy, bashy technical brilliance without profundity and that his ventures into crossover were indicative of his shallowness as an artist.

My task is to try to forget entirely about all such background debate and listen to these two recordings as objectively as possible, particularly as the exercise of producing a survey inculcated in me a considerable tolerance of a variety of interpretative approaches. Nonetheless, I inescapably have my own tastes and even prejudices regarding how I want to hear this music performed on a modern piano and can only write as I find.

First impressions of this prestige production are that DG have really pushed the boat out for their superstar and of course the launch of this set is accompanied by the usual media circus of mini-documentary video clips, news conferences and autograph-signings. The prospective purchaser has the option of just the studio recording, a twofer available for little more than a single full-price disc, or the “deluxe” edition including a live performance made shortly before that, for double the price. A trilingual, 48-page, book-style digipack, lavishly illustrated with both black and white and colour photographs, with the two CDs of the studio recording in the front and the two of the live performance at the back, all make for what is indeed a very luxurious package. Furthermore, the sound in both is excellent, if very closely recorded, and there is quite a lot ambient, echoing rustle and some distant coughing in the live version.

Unfortunately, I find the performances here to be at times decidedly mannered and inconsistent. The excessive timings requiring four discs are not just the result of Lang Lang including all the repeats but are owing to his pulling about of tempi, lingering over phrases lovingly and disrupting all sense of continuity or homogeneity by constant point-making. Variation 7 is a case in point: jerkily and erratically delivered. Bach is not Chopin or Rachmaninov and does not thrive when he is hugged to death; he frequently requires moto perpetuo vigour and energy, and is stifled by the application of too Romantic a sensibility. However, just as one begins to lose patience with Lang Lang’s indulgence, he produces a perfectly executed variation, the earliest example being the opening aria followed by a beautifully weighted, restrained, discreetly ornamented first variation with plenty of momentum – but then, the second is plonked out unfeelingly in the heavy-handed manner which has attracted criticism and even resulted in a hand injury. In the fourth variation, he seems to be out-Goulding Glenn Gould for percussiveness, no. 12 lacks finesse and no. 13 is erratically phrased – and so it goes. Skipping right to the close of the work, we find the pianist in somnambulistic mode for the Quodlibet, undermining what should be the contrast inherent between its drive and the serene calm of the restatement of the Aria, which simply sounds dull and earthbound. On the other hand, the slow no. 15 strikes the right note of tender melancholy.

No review of the Goldbergs is complete without consideration of the “Black Pearl”, no. 25. Its progress here leaves me strangely unmoved; I do not sense any great emotional involvement in the pianist’s execution of it. Nonetheless, Lang Lang plays with unfailingly lovely, singing tone and there is never any question regarding his facility, such as in his thrilling, pyrotechnic delivery of numbers five, fourteen and twenty-six, However, some of the slower variations are etiolated almost to the point of stasis. In that regard, the live performance is marginally less studied and affected than the studio account and the concluding aria more atmospheric, but there are no big interpretative differences between the two versions and it is ironic that the artistically superior account is sonically inferior.

In his notes, Lang Lang tells us that has been incubating this music for twenty years and implies that his recent marriage and now being in his late thirties have both contributed to his greater subtlety, inwardness and sophistication as an artist. My initial reaction, a first play-through of the studio recording, was certainly less favourable than subsequent listenings and I suspect that I shall increasingly be reconciled to his approach. Ultimately, the results are interesting and intermittently very engaging; this is indeed, serious, thoughtful music-making worthy of respect and one cannot but enjoy such music when it is so expertly played but it does not necessarily surpass my many favoured versions in intensity, integrity and, above all, in a coherent overview.

Ralph Moore

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