Alexandra Papastefanou (piano)
First Hand Records FHR110 79:29 mins
The story that these variations were composed for the insomniac Count Keyserlingk’s harpsichordist Goldberg to play during his master’s sleepless nights may or may not be true, but it is a charming one. It is certain, however, that no melody of relatively modest pretensions was treated to such an inspired workout until Beethoven turned his attention to a waltz by Diabelli some 80 years later. Unsurprisingly, Bach’s approach is systematic with nine canons interspersing more virtuoso variations and the second half opens spectacularly with a crowd-pleasing French overture.
Encompassing the expressive richness of the variations is a tall order for any player. From the outset, Alexandra Papastefanou takes a nuanced view, both poised and elegant. While the first two variations may seem a touch ‘business like’, there is also much to admire in her careful phrasing. Papastefanou’s ornamentation is considered throughout and she maintains a strong sense of structure in each variation while respecting their individual place in the work as a whole. The overtly contrapuntal variations have rigour without being oppressively didactic, and her ability to capture the improvisatory nature of such variations as 13 and 23 is also impressive. The French Overture variation is a little underwhelming, but the penultimate Quodlibet has a satisfyingly cumulative quality.
For those who find the modern piano unacceptable in the Goldbergs, Andreas Staier’s beautifully balanced reading on a harpsichord contemporary to Bach on Harmonia Mundi will certainly suffice, but if Papastefanou does not supply the last interpretative word, her well recorded performance is certainly recommendable.