Bach: Goldberg Variations

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WORKS: Goldberg Variations
PERFORMER: Pierre Hantaï (harpsichord)
Bach’s Goldberg Variations were originally published as an ‘Aria with sundry variations’ – a prosaic title for the most monumental set of variations of the entire Baroque period. Its nickname comes from the colourful account by Bach’s biographer Forkel, who relates that the music was commissioned by the Dresden Count Keyserlingk for the young virtuoso Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to play in order to allay the count’s insomnia. But not even the proverbial log could sleep during Andrei Gavrilov’s staggering display of piano virtuosity, in which he milks every contrast inherent in the piece. The Aria is romantically slow, but some of the variations are the fastest on record; at one moment the playing is delicate and lyrical, at the next strident and vigorous. Not for a moment does the tension slacken, and if some tempi are simply too fast for comfort, and occasionally the playing is a touch heavy-handed, this is none the less an exhilarating performance.


By contrast, Pierre Hantaï’s introspective reading, for the salon rather than the concert hall, brings to mind Forkel’s words that ‘the pieces would have to be calm in character, tending towards joyfulness’. Tempi are moderate, and virtuosic display is replaced by elegant restraint. Kate Bolton