JS Bach: Goldberg Variations

LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Goldberg Variations
PERFORMER: Richard Egarr (harpsichord)
Richard Egarr’s Goldberg Variations enters the arena to face stiff competition from rival versions above all by Gustav Leonhardt, Kenneth Gilbert, Trevor Pinnock, Scott Ross, Maggie Cole, Malcolm Proud and Pierre Hantaï. My first preference has been Hantaï who has twice recorded the Goldbergs (on Naïve, currently unavailable; and on Mirare). Egarr is an accomplished harpsichordist whose unflashy style usually serves the best interests of Bach’s music. Yet the seriousness of this playing, elegant though it can be, seems too often to undermine Bach’s primary intention of entertaining the listener. The Fourth Variation comes over as lumpy and earthbound, the Eighth as ponderous and the Ninth as too deliberate. Hantaï, who just as much as Egarr avoids uncalled for showiness and vacuous rhetoric, manages to inject far greater life into the variations. Both artists convey a sustained concentration of thought but, while Egarr’s playing strikes my ears as private, even abstracted, that of Hantaï and Pinnock more readily share with the listener the prevailingly dance-based character of the music and its sheer energy. Hantaï further demonstrates a rhythmic elasticity which assists in the music’s levitation.


What Egarr offers in addition to the programmes of almost all his competitors, though, is the inclusion of the 14 Goldberg Canons, multitracking those which require more than two hands. These, and an interesting meantone tuning system, are certainly enticing carrots but it is Hantaï’s entertaining two recordings which make the greater appeal. Nicholas Anderson