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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV988
Burkard Schliessmann (piano)
rec. 2007, Teldex Studio, Berlin
DIVINE ART DDC25754 SACD [2 CDs: 83]

Two years ago, I surveyed thirty-three recordings of the Goldberg Variations played on modern piano and found it difficult to establish any meaningful hierarchy of quality, there being so many recommendable versions, but I tentatively declared an attachment to perhaps too many recordings by such as Lifschitz, Nikolayeva, Perahia, Levit, Tharaud, Rana and, of course, Glenn Gould. I couched the expression of those preferences in would-be whimsical terms, saying, “I am much more drawn to pianists who are rash, brash and flash rather than those of the fleet, effete and discreet variety – but nor do I like the “saggy-waggy elephant style.”

This latest to come my way is a re-mastered re-issue of this 2007 SACD recording on Bayer Records from distinguished German pianist and Bach specialist Burkard Schliessmann on the Divine Art label – and I am unsure if or how he might be said to fit into either of my two categories. Alarm bells went off in my head the moment I saw that its timing stretches to 83 minutes on two discs, as I tend to favour a fleeter, tauter manner with baroque music – although Koroliev and Sokolov get away with greater expansiveness. Often described a Romantic, poetic and intuitive interpreter, Schliessmann’s approach here to Bach is decidedly on the eccentric, not to say wilful, side and it has to be said that in his review of the original issue (on the Bayer Records label), my colleague Dominy Clements made it clear that he was less than enchanted by it. Indeed, in short, he found it mannered, erratic, stodgy and pointless. Nonetheless, I tried to listen without prejudice. I am sorry to say, however, that I agree with him and refer you to his detailed and forensic analysis of its failings.

Let me add a few observations of my own: I am quite with my fellow-reviewer in that I find Schliessmann’s constant twiddling about with rhythms, anticipating then delaying the beat, as unmusical, irritating and unnerving. They disrupt the requisite legato and are not really consonant with what I understand to be true rubato. The point of a sustained pulse is that it has to be discernible if the performer is to deviate from it markedly and here the underlying rhythm just seems arbitrary, so any such deviations are lost in the soup. The rushing of phrases in Variation 5 sounds absurd to my ears, especially when followed by the galumphing manner of the Sixth – both are equally repellent in very different ways. Glen Gould was sparkling and playful here; Schliessmann is downright exasperating. The ‘Black Pearl’ by contrast, is simply slow and plodding, lacking all inner tension; I have never heard so pedestrian an account of it. To check my response, I turned to other, favoured recordings; almost nobody else takes anywhere near as long over it, and if they do they avoid the lugubriousness which mars Schliemann’s.

Just like DC, I wanted to like this, wish I could be more complimentary and don’t want to go on bashing it, so let me conclude with a compliment: it is in first-class sound, beautifully presented in a folding cardboard pack with a booklet in three languages featuring nice colour photographs - but…

Ralph Moore

Previous reviews (original release): Dominy Clements ~ Mark Sebastian Jordan

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