Bach Goldberg Variations
Marianne Richert Pfau’s liner notes are some of the most scholarly and fascinating I’ve read. She ranges from Chaucer through (brother of Henry) Daniel Purcell to Bach and explores beyond the purpose of the Variations, written for JG Goldberg to entertain his employer, the insomniac Russian ambassador to Saxony, Count Kaiserling.
Bach’s musical sleeping draught was a set of 30 variations all on the same harmonic pattern. The variety within them, though, is striking – delicately decorated melodies, flashing arabesques, dances, fugues, and every third variation a canon at increasingly wide intervals. If the ever-recurring predictable harmony is like counting sheep, each is of a strikingly different breed.
Takae Ohnishi plays with flair and fluency: from the sparkling eleventh Variation, two parts constantly crossing and parting in well‑balanced yet distinctive voices, through the grand gestures opening the French Ouverture of Variation 16, to a sensitive balance between self-indulgent sentimentality and the merely prosaic in the languid Adagio of Variation 25. Her hand-crossing in the Italian style, stretching as far as the arms can reach, is admirably fluent (Variation 14) and the crashing chords and skittering triplets of Variation 29 suggest Kaiserling is still wide awake.
Despite her technical fluency, Ohnishi’s playing is sometimes a little pedestrian, in the opening ‘Aria’ for example. She seems more committed as the Variations progress.
Recording is assertively close: it gives us the performer’s perspective rather than that from the antechamber outside Kaiserling’s bedroom. A headphone check confirmed that a rogue G (Variation 12) is within the recording rather than my listening space.