Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Andreas Staier (harpsichord)
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902058
What luxuriant times we live in. I cannot imagine being without at least a dozen of the numerous interesting recordings on harpsichord of Bach’s variation masterpiece, the Goldbergs. A handful of them at least seem effortlessly to retain their place high on the Parnassian slopes, and among these I would cite Malcolm Proud (Maya), Gustav Leonhardt (Teldec), Maggie Cole (Virgin), and Pierre Hantaï (Mirare). To this select group I shall now add the new version by Andreas Staier.
On past occasions, I have found Staier susceptible to exaggerated gesture, leading to empty showiness. However, there is nothing of that in his Goldbergs which display a pleasing blend of intellectual rigour, robust declamation and leisurely reflection. These are virtues possessed by Hantaï who, more than Staier indulges in expressive idiosyncrasies, savouring certain harmonic moments by pauses, hand-spreading and momentary rhythmic interruption.
Staier is more conventional in his approach but no less virtuosic and entertaining. What endears me to both players is the sustained ability with which they apply Bach’s formal mastery to the business of entertaining us. This blend of learning, virtuosity and sensuous enjoyment – Staier perhaps coming across as the more theatrically inclined – is present throughout, stimulating, touching and exciting our sensibilities in turn. Leonhardt, who is never less than impressive, cannot easily match their sheer exuberance and readers might need to consider the absence of repeats in his recital.
There is, I’m afraid, no clear winner but rest assured, neither Staier nor Hantaï will disappoint. Both are vividly recorded, each featuring somewhat different but fine-sounding instruments. Additionally, Staier’s version includes a promotional DVD.
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