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Bach: Goldberg Variations

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

JS Bach
Goldberg Variations
Murray Perahia (piano)
Sony Classical SK 89243

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Recordings of the Goldberg Variations are lying thick upon the ground nowadays and choosing a version becomes ever more difficult. Bach wrote his great set of variations for a two-manual harpsichord, stipulating in the interests of contrapuntal clarity the use of both keyboards in 11 of the 30 variations. It’s an obstacle which can easily be overcome by pianists, yet the conviction with which they carry it off greatly varies.

Murray Perahia is one of our finest Bach pianists, as his recent recordings of the English Suites confirm. 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. Evgeny Koroliov (Hänssler), on the other hand, projects too much of his forceful personality, somewhat at the expense of poetic content. My choice lies between Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording (Sony), that of Angela Hewitt (Hyperion) and the Perahia in front of me. And, on reflection and repeated listening I find that neither Gould nor Hewitt have been dethroned by Perahia from their recently established benchmark status. Perahia is sometimes freer with his ornamentation than is called for by the music and it does not always strike my ears as stylistically idiomatic – the first half repeat of Var. 2 provides an instance of what I mean. And in Vars 4 and 14 I find his emphatic gestures a shade aggressive. But it’s a fine performance which will delight many readers.

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Nicholas Anderson