JS Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

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WORKS: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
PERFORMER: Joanna MacGregor (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 2564 68393-3


Joanna MacGregor is a highly versatile pianist, conductor and evangelist, in classical, jazz and contemporary music. You might expect something arresting when she turns to Bach’s ‘Air with 30 variations for the harpsichord’.

They’re arranged in groups of three, a standard dance/fugue/ouverture, an arabesque often with hands crossing, and canons increasing in interval from unison to ninth through the whole set – an exceptionally taut format. MacGregor plays the opening ‘Air’ beautifully, but curiously this, the very movement on which every subsequent one is based in harmonic progression and structure, lacks its second repeat.

The first variations are subtly joined into broader sections by common tempos and unbroken continuity until MacGregor delights in her own virtuosity with a shimmering fifth variation – but now lacking both repeats. And she continues to play fast and loose with Bach’s rigorous format, omitting repeats sometimes of one half, sometimes of both, including the ‘once-only’ music of first- and second-time bars.

Her piano tone is often riveting: the second canon rises and falls in a gentle ripple; with only a single keyboard she negotiates immaculately Bach two-manual complexities. But too much is perverse: a listless gigue (Var. 7), an ‘Alla Breve’ (implying a lusty two-in-a-bar) unbelievably slow (Var. 22), and the final return to the Aria, emerging mysteriously from the mist – and robbed of repeats.


For performance which combines respect of Bach’s structure with fine piano playing, I would still turn to Angela Hewitt on Hyperion. George Pratt