What are the Goldberg Variations?
One of the few works by JS Bach to be printed in the composer’s lifetime, the Goldberg Variations were published in 1741. The highly technical work consists of 32 movements: an Aria, 30 variations and an Aria da Capo, which concludes the piece by returning to the beginning aria. Every third variation takes the form of a canon, each one increasing the interval between the melodic lines, from unison up to a ninth. All but three movements are in G major: variations 15, 21 and 25 (the famous ‘black pearl’ variation) shift the work temporarily into G minor.
The first edition prescribes the work for ‘harpsichord with two manuals’ and outlines which variations should be played on each keyboard. However, it has since become a benchmark for all keyboard players, as well as a source of continual debate as to whether it is best played on harpsichord, as Bach had intended, or the modern piano.
Why is it called the Goldberg Variations?
According to Bach’s biographer, Johann Nikolas Forkel, the work was named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a young performer employed by Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling, the Russian ambassador to Saxony. As Forkel tells it, the variations were written for 14-year-old Goldberg to perform for his employer as a remedy for Keyserling’s insomnia. Writing in 1802, Forkel’s retrospective account has since been scrutinised and is, most likely, exaggerated.
The best recordings of JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations
It is impossible to discuss the Goldberg Variations without mentioning Glenn Gould’s groundbreaking recording in 1955 that put both artist and work on the classical music map. The success of the album, which sold more than 100,000 copies in Gould’s lifetime, drove the variations into the mainstream of classical keyboard repertoire. His second recording of the work in 1981 reached over 2 million sales in 2000.
Not one recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is like another, varying by instrument, duration and use of repeats, among other artistic choices. With hundreds of recordings since Gould, our contenders here, presented in chronological order, are the standout Goldberg interpreters since the turn of the 21st century.
Murray Perahia (piano)
Sony Classical SK89243 (2000)
Tranquillity oozes from Murray Perahia, whose attention to detail is also second-to-none. This recording rewards listeners with Perahia’s technical excellence as well as the thrilling personality he injects into each movement.
‘Murray Perahia is one of our finest Bach pianists’, writes BBC Music Magazine reviewer Nicholas Andersen, ‘His Goldbergs flow mellifluously with fine linear clarity. This is warm-hearted and spirited playing which at once makes a greater appeal to me than Daniel Barenboim (Teldec) or Maria Tipo (EMI), both of whom in different ways seem to take us away from the heart of the music.’
András Schiff (piano)
ECM 4721852 (2003) (recorded 2001)
Twenty years after his first Goldbergs recording (Decca, 1982), András Schiff returns to the Variations with a performance that improves on its already impressive predecessor. In this live recording, Schiff achieves a purer sound quality and greater sensitivity in his playing. It is, at times, hard to believe this note-perfect performance is recorded live, captured from a concert in Basel.
In the disc’s booklet notes, Schiff champions the piano’s suitability for the 80-minute work: ‘Hands on heart – can you listen to the harpsichord for that long?’. His instrument of choice, a Steinway prepared by Italian technician Angelo Fabbrini, travels with him around the globe as does Rocco Cicchella, his personal technician.
Schiff has since performed the Goldberg Variations at the 2015 BBC Proms, captivating a packed Royal Albert Hall with a single instrument and the 32 movements committed to memory.
Andreas Staier (harpsichord)
Harmonia Mundi HMC902058 (2010)
In contrast to Schiff, Andreas Staier believes that the Goldberg Variations lose something when not played on the instrument Bach wrote it for. His harpsichord in this recording, a Hass built in Hamburg around 1734, emphasises the structural and intellectual demands of the piece. Despite the difficulty, Staier seems very much at ease, producing an overarching mellowness yet also accentuating the different colours of the harpsichord’s sounds.
According to Nicholas Andersen, Staier ‘is more conventional in his approach but no less virtuosic and entertaining.’ Andersen praises him for the ‘leisurely reflection’ and the blend of ‘learning, virtuosity and sensuous enjoyment’ that define this recording.
Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
DG 479 5929 (2016)
Esfahani’s unpredictable recording rebels against the perceived rigidity of the Variations and their structure. The opening Aria is pure simplicity, the choice to leave the theme unembellished providing space for rich growth throughout the performance. Esfahani extracts a rare sense of rhythmic freedom from the movements, fostered by unusual tempo changes, all of which keeps listeners on their toes – an impressive achievement for such a well-recorded work.
For our reviewer George Pratt, the standout quality of Esfahani’s recording is its versatility, writing that his ‘touch draws a remarkable variety of tone, density and resonance from his instrument’.
Igor Levit (piano)
Sony Classical 88875060962 (2016)
Full of character, the Goldberg Variations in the Russian-born pianist Igor Levit’s hands is a masterclass in expression. This award-winning recording was originally accompanied by Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, but is now available as its own disc.
The variation form seems to be Levit’s forte, allowing him to push the boundaries with both his instrument and the works. ‘Levit is in pursuit of a single discipline, and road-tests the notion of variation to within an inch of its life’, writes Paul Riley, ‘The Aria sings without affectation as if to emphasise that what follows isn’t about the theme but what happens to it. And what happens is always judiciously plotted.’
Beatrice Rana (piano)
Warner Classics 9029588018 (2017)
In her recording made at the age of 24, Italian pianist Beatrice Rana displays an impressive maturity beyond her years . Graceful, reflective and full of poise, Rana’s disc won her a Classic Brit Award nomination for Best Female Artist of the Year and launched her 30-city tour with the work.
‘Every piece in Rana’s tapestry is vividly characterised, and none are overblown, didactic, or taken at an exaggerated tempo,’ writes Michael Church. ‘The alternating comedy, grandeur, and exultant cleverness of the up-beat variations surges boldly out, while the seemingly endless melody of Variation 13 feels at moments suspended in mid-flight, the lamentation of Variation 15 cries to the heavens, and the tragedy of the ‘Black Pearl’ (25) becomes heart-stoppingly profound.’
Lang Lang (piano)
DG (2020) 481 8971 (2 disc); 481 9701 (4 disc)
After suffering with a severe case of tendonitis, Lang Lang made his triumphant return to classical music here with a considered, mature album of two Goldberg recordings: one recorded live in Bach’s Thomaskirche in Leipzig and one in a studio setting. One of classical music’s more flamboyant performers on stage, Lang Lang here reminds his listeners and critics of the sheer technical prowess and musical intelligence that have contributed to his well-deserved reputation.
‘I was impressed by the immaculate playing, and by the fact that Lang Lang wears his heart on his sleeve throughout,’ writes Michael Church, ‘he has deeply pondered every bar, and his edifice is rock-firm.’
Find out more about JS Bach and his works here