Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

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2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Actes Sud
WORKS: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
PERFORMER: Jean Louis Steuerman (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: Sud AT 34112
Recordings by Brazilian pianist Jean Louis Steuerman and Norwegian harpsichordist Ketil Haugsand add to a daunting list of versions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The Goldbergs were expressly written for a two-manual harpsichord and, in order to preserve contrapuntal clarity, Bach stipulated the use of both keyboards in 11 of the variations. This presents difficulties for a pianist, who is at once challenged by the limitations of a single keyboard, necessitating the nimblest of hand-crossing while at the same time preserving linear clarity in the counterpoint. Steuerman succeeds well, yet his performance too often strikes my ears as undercharacterised and a little humourless. Though there may well be an intended didactic undercurrent running throughout the work it is, above all, entertaining and it is this feature which I sometimes found lacking. Angela Hewitt (Hyperion) and Murray Perahia (Sony) both make greater appeal, while the personal communication of Glenn Gould, in his 1955 recording, adds a further dimension.

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Haugsand is an accomplished harpsichordist whose recording of Bach’s keyboard Partitas was well received a few years ago. He is a spirited player, as you will quickly find out by listening to Var. 4. There is nothing stuffy about Haugsand’s approach and his view of the music is often refreshingly personal. That is not to say, however, that I always got on with it for, while it has great charm, it sometimes seemed to lack nobility of declamation. That element can be found in rival performances by Maggie Cole and Pierre Hantaï (Opus 111), both of whom, like Haugsand and Christophe Rousset (Decca), are able to convey the sheer pleasure they derive from playing these masterly and inspired pieces. Nicholas Anderson