Andrea Bacchetti’s latest recording of Bach’s great set of variations is one of the most wonderful things I have ever heard. Bacchetti has already recorded the work, twice in fact – once on DVD and once on CD, a pair I reviewed enthusiastically five years ago. Different from one another, those performances were both much more different from the new one. The earlier performances were both extremely slow, while this new one is mainly fairly fleet. That it takes 65 minutes is explained by Bacchetti’s taking every repeat, though the word ‘repeat’ is a bit misleading, when in every case he varies the decorations, the dynamics, and sometimes even the tempo.
The only thing that I can imagine anyone objecting to in this recording is the amount of decoration, though it is more conspicuous in the initial playing of the aria itself than in anything that follows. It might have been a good idea to play it unvarnished before embarking on the long journey to its return. But Bacchetti is one of those artists who rapidly convince you that everything they do is right, even if you temporarily have misgivings. Every single variation here is thought out afresh, but what is still more remarkable is the cumulative energy, so that by the time Bacchetti had reached the last four, I had an idiot grin of ecstasy, which refused to go away.
I played the whole set again, and listened even more enthralled. Most performers, including Bacchetti in his recordings, make an immense meal of the highly wrought, chromatic variations, but here they’re parts of an overall design, without losing any of their power. After this transcendent account of the Goldbergs, we get five very short pieces from the Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach, including a re-run of the aria. A perfect way to land.
Nick van Bloss has had an odd career. Suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome, he had to retire for 15 years from piano playing at 26. There has been a Horizon programme on him, and he has written an autobiography, Busy Body. This recording of the Goldbergs is individual, interesting, never routine. It is hard luck that it has come out at the same time as Bacchetti’s. Van Bloss takes almost exactly the same time over them as Bacchetti, but his tempos are in general slower. He repeats the first half of each variation, and less than half of the second halves, which adds a pleasing spontaneity to his account. But it isn’t cumulative, and doesn’t exult, which for me is the crucial thing. Michael Tanner