JS Bach: Goldberg Variations; plus documentary ‘The Return is the Movement of Tao’ (DVD)

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Accentus
WORKS: Goldberg Variations; plus documentary ‘The Return is the Movement of Tao’
PERFORMER: Zhu Xiao-Mei (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: ACC 20313

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In the documentary film that accompanies this performance, Chinese pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei reflects on the timelessness and universality of Bach’s music while touching briefly on her own extraordinary life. We hear of her copying out Bach scores in secret during the Cultural Revolution in China and we see her living in reclusive solitude in a snowy Alpine retreat, where the Goldberg Variations provide company, conversation, and food for contemplation. She speaks – with humility and eloquence – of the artistic inspiration of her adopted city, Paris, of Taoism, and of the cyclic nature of things. With its serene pace and poetic images, the documentary makes an inspiring introduction to Xiao-Mei’s concert performance of the Goldbergs, filmed at the 2014 Leipzig Bach Festival. The Church of St Thomas, where Bach worked for the last 27 years of his life, provides a resonant setting, and discrete images of his tomb garlanded with fresh flowers, of light-filled windows, and of a rapt audience, all speak silently of transience and eternity.

Xiao-Mei draws a glorious, lyrical sound from the piano – by turns lustrous, glittering, glassy – bringing out individual strands of even the most complex polyphony with exquisite lucidity. Her tempos are responsive to the spacious church acoustic, never too fast to cloud the textures yet buoyant enough to dance. Silences, too, are beautifully judged. Her occasional, Romantically expressive liberties seem unnecessary, but this quibble does not detract from what is ultimately a great and noble performance – one that will surely stand as a classic.

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Kate Bolton