WORKS: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
PERFORMER: Mia Chung (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CCS 12798
The ‘Goldberg’ variations are extraordinarily constrained: thirty movements all on the harmonic pattern of a simple aria; with the contrapuntal challenge of canons at each interval from unison to ninth; ending with a quasi-improvisation on two popular tunes. Such curbs stimulated Bach, master of arcane techniques, to his greatest music – and Gould in his first (1955) recording to a quite overwhelming vision. While the piano tone, digitally enhanced, sounds a touch thin and LP duration inhibited repeats of each binary section, Gould’s insights match his remarkable spiritual and technical sensitivity.
Chung too is a thoughtful pianist. As the canons generate their own counterpoint by imitation in a subsequent part, she accentuates the device, particularly where it is concealed by the imitation being upside-down. The moto perpetuo semi-quavers of variation 17 are charmingly pert. She is deeply passionate in the melancholic slough (variation 25), before Bach’s spirits rise towards the belly-laugh of the final Quodlibet. Her hands surf the piano keyboard fluently where Bach directed them to cross comfortably on the two manuals of a harpsichord. Tempi are largely reflective and, even had she stretched her 64 minutes to the CD limit, she would have had to limit repeats – though the logic of her choice of cuts isn’t obvious. Other questionable judgements include inconsistent trills between canonic lines, Busoni-like octaves at the end of variation 16’s Ouverture.
Though a ringing B natural proved irksome (an acoustical quirk within her piano, not my room: I checked with headphones), the disc is cleanly recorded. George Pratt