Novel Keyboards In ‘Goldberg’ Feats Accent Variation

Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt plays Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ on piano.
(Photo by Maria Teresa de Luca)

Bach: Goldberg Variations. Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord. Deutsche Grammophon 479 5929.
Bach: Goldberg Variations. Angela Hewitt, piano. Hyperion CDA68146.

By Arthur Kaptainis

DIGITAL REVIEW — Few collectors would include the Goldberg Variations on a list of masterpieces in dire need of reinterpretation. Dozens of greats (and scores of pretty-goods) have had a go at Bach’s purported sleep aid and rendered highly non-soporific results. Now Angela Hewitt has given us a second version on Hyperion, using her own Fazioli piano (the first, in 1999, had been on a Steinway), while Deutsche Grammophon has paired Mahan Esfahani with a harpsichord by Huw Saunders based on a Thuringian model of c. 1710 (and tuned with sharp keys in mind by technician Simon Neal). I welcome both recordings but am not quite prepared to find room for them on the top shelf.

Esfahani’s is the more problematic release. He alienates the listener in the very first bar by playing the G of the left hand before the melodic G in the right and omitting the distinctive ornament on the third note (which is clearly marked in the Anna Magdalena 1725 manuscript fragment reproduced in the DG booklet). Perhaps not surprisingly, it materializes in the repeat, but this is a high price in textual noncompliance to pay for expressive benefits that are far from clear. That ornament speaks to me as the inaugural Goldberg moment. Its absence is baffling.

Of course it is not fatal. Esfahani is a virtuoso, and there are fine displays of fingerwork in the Scarlattian Fifth Variation and the ascending and descending triplets of Variation 20. Happily, the Iranian-American is not allergic to slowdowns at cadences and adds a good deal of respiration at fitting moments. There might be more rubato than we need in the heavy alternating chords of Variation 29, although treating this piece in an improvisatory style is defensible. But Variation 15, the first of the three in minor mode, is straitlaced, as if the artist had not yet decided between pathos and austerity.

Then there is the strange case of Variation 13, where again we get the Paderewski left-right effect along with interpolated arabesques that do not shake in the slightest my view that Bach knew well enough how much ornamentation was required. As for registration, both color and character are more abundant on the 1933 recording of Wanda Landowska (whom Esfahani graciously mentions first among the “great sages” who have influenced him). In short, a recording that is engaging in parts but unconvincing as a whole.

Now to set aside the apple and discuss the orange. The fact that the Goldberg Variations were written explicitly for a two-manual harpsichord has not stopped pianists from embracing them (and the consequent cross-handed difficulties) as very much their own. Some listeners might regard the piano as the quintessential (if theoretical) Bach instrument. These people will find much to savor from Hewitt and her Fazioli.

The Canadian (like Esfahani, resident in the U.K.) certainly supplies enough of articulatory nuance to support the common thesis that the piano can simply do more than its predecessor (including making the simple distinction of legato and staccato in the top line of Variation 13, which Landowska insinuates with subtle tempo shifting). “Liszt is surely not far away,” Hewitt comments in her detailed and perceptive booklet notes about Variation 29, backing up the observation with a thunderous performance in which the leaps in the bass sound suspiciously like double octaves.

There are many other felicities, including a songful and probing treatment of the Adagio minor-mode Variation 25 that clocks in at 10 seconds short of nine minutes (Esfahni’s timing is 6:45). Nor is Hewitt entirely averse to emendation, adding a pair of grace notes when she repeats the first half of her wonderfully light and détaché Variation 17. If there is a “but,” it has to do with an occasional feeling of sameness that had my remote-control finger itching at certain cadences before a second-half repeat. As fluid and lyrical as Hewitt’s treatment of Variation 13 is, I cannot say that anything she did surprised me.

The other “but” is the existence of Glenn Gould’s celebrated 1955 recording for Columbia Masterworks, done without repeats in the age of the LP, but so rich in blinding insights and so subtle in technical execution that you are left entirely convinced of the extra-dimensional truth of the matter the first time around. There are marvels also in the pianist’s valedictory remake of 1981 (including a soulful Variation 25). Some might find the vocalise on this landmark digital recording intrusive even by Gould standards, and the frankly hideous pounding-out of Variation 1 is something of a roadblock. Gould 1955 remains the one Goldberg recording you must have if one is all you are allowed. Not that anyone is so restricted!

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.