Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Tall Poppies
WORKS: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
PERFORMER: Nicholas Parle (harpsichord)
The Goldberg Variations mark a turning point in Bach’s music. Published in 1741, they represent both a culmination of his explorations of keyboard styles in earlier volumes of the Clavier-Übung and, in their new emphasis on canon, they look forward to the major instrumental works of his final years, notably the Musical Offering and the Art of Fugue. As Richard D.P. Jones has noted, three chief characteristics of Bach’s keyboard music – stylistic diversity, virtuosity, strict counterpoint – are reflected in the variations’ tripartite groupings: ‘diverse’ piece (gigue, fughetta, overture, etc) – virtuoso exercise – canon. The challenge to the performer is to bring out the music’s amazing range of style and character.


Nicholas Parle’s impressive reading has a ruminative quality that well suits the light, pellucid tone of his harpsichord. Though his playing lacks nothing in finesse or lyricism, his approach to some of the faster, more virtuosic variations can seem a touch diffident when compared to Trevor Pinnock’s rhythmic élan. This remains my benchmark recording: Pinnock plays with such zest and his harpsichord has a particularly enchanting tone. Unfortunately, he omits nearly half the repeats, whereas Parle and other commendable interpreters Pierre Hantaï (Opus 111) and Christophe Rousset (L’Oiseau Lyre) omit few or none.


Maggie Cole offers strong, unfussy performances, and a second CD of additional works represents good value. However, two copies of her ‘Goldberg’ disc that I played both had the same manufacturing fault: the access points came about five seconds after the start of each track! Check before buying. Graham Lock