JS Bach Goldberg Variations
Warner 9029571937 60:26 mins
The snazzy packaging of this CD wasn’t auspicious, nor was the promise that it would ‘feature nods’ to pop rhythmic motifs, jazz improvisation, and reverb. Trained at Juilliard, this young Korean hit the headlines with stunts including a commercial in which he mucked about with Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ on two pianos, one detuned. But Bach’s music has brought him back to musical truth, ‘because it’s so stripped naked’. He sounds genuinely surprised that someone who lived 300 years ago can speak to millennials.
The aria is clean and expressive, and the first variation nicely sprung. Forewarned, one listens for those featured nods, but they are very discreet: here an extra little rush of notes, there a fleeting hint of jazzy rhythm; at one point each note of a rapid melody is even more rapidly repeated. His additional embellishments are less obtrusive than those of many a ‘conventional’ pianist, and most of the time you sense them, rather than consciously register them. The Black Pearl variation emerges pale, restrained, but beautiful; it’s clear he both loves and respects this music.
Is there a downside? Well, he doesn’t have Beatrice Rana’s bewitching poetry, nor András Schiff’s chiselled eloquence. And there’s no hint of any emotional depth – this is a brittle, Teflon journey. But in its own way it’s quite impressive.