Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Lang Lang (piano)
DG 481 8971 00:00 mins (2 discs)
Lang Lang has studied the Goldbergs for 20 years, and recording this work has been his dream. He played it from memory for Christoph Eschenbach when he was 17, and did so again for Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who told him he needed to communicate a greater sense of solitude; he consulted the harpsichordist Andreas Staier about pedal use, ornamentation, dynamics and the overall structure. In search for the right sound, he recorded the work for a live audience in Bach’s own church in Leipzig, then decided to complement that version with one recorded in the studio.
Listening first to the studio version, I was impressed by the immaculate playing, and by the fact that Lang Lang wears his heart on his sleeve throughout: this is in extreme contrast to András Schiff’s celebrated 2003 recording, in terms of both emotion (with Schiff, even the ‘Black Pearl’ variation emerges notably dry) and in tempo (Schiff’s versions are mostly much shorter). Lang Lang’s Black Pearl seems to make the world stand still, but there’s nothing mawkish about it.
The two halves of this album complement each other, yet they are almost exactly the same length. Such is the integrity of Lang Lang’s interpretation: he has deeply pondered every bar, and his edifice is rock-firm. But when you compare these recordings track by track, you realise that he was liberated by the presence of an audience. What can appear a trifle dainty and cautious in the studio gains in warmth and passion in the church. The beauty of his playing remains chaste, but it acquires theatricality: the plate-spinning trills of Variation 27 and the full-dress virtuosity of 28 lead exultantly to the expansiveness of the Quodlibet.