bach goldberg encelade

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV988
Jean-Luc Ho (harpsichord)
rec. 2022, Bibliothèque François-Lang de l’Abbaye de Royaumont, Val-d’Oise, France
Encelade ECL2201 [2 CDs: 87]

I have already heard of Jean-Luc Ho. Several years ago I reviewed and gave a thumbs-up to his recording of William Byrd’s Walsingham, also on the Encelade label. Now he turns his attention to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The harpsichord he has chosen, after a good deal of searching, is a two-manual French instrument in the Goujon style, built by Émile Jobin in 1983. It provides him with “balance, dynamics and tonal structure”. At 87 minutes the performance stretches over two CDs.

I have to lay my cards on the table from the outset and admit that personally I prefer the Goldbergs performed on the modern piano; I feel that the instrument has a wider colour range and greater expressive scope. However, I do like to listen to the work played on the harpsichord very much. There’s no doubting that Jean-Luc Ho joins the ranks of some of the finest harpsichord versions I very much enjoy listening to, including Christoph Rousset, Masaaki Suzuki and Pierre Hantaï.

Ho’s is a considered and cultivated interpretation, offering refined and sensitive playing with an assertive touch when necessary. Throughout, he invests the music with rhythmic freedom and manifold variety of articulation. Observing repeats, he opts for a relaxed choice of tempi with a discreet touch of rubato in the opening aria. Ornamentation can often be a problem, but for Ho it’s discreet, tasteful and, at all times, idiomatic. He displays a great technical command of the instrument. The result is a convincing interpretation of intuitive musicality.

There are many high points, here are just a few. There’s a reassuring confidence to Var. 4. Var. 14 and Var. 29 display great technical command. I’m particularly enamoured by the relaxed serenity of Var. 15, whilst the following variation presents an elegantly paced French Overture. The trills of Var. 28 have an attractive bell-like quality. Var. 25, known as the ‘Black Pearl’ comes across as heartfelt and sincere, and there’s a determined feeling of joy in Var. 30 as one reaches the final destination. When the aria is reprised at the end, there’s an overwhelming sense of inevitability.

I found Ho’s performance of the Goldberg Variations very rewarding. He invests the music with real character and personality. It’s a beautifully sounding instrument and has been captured in first class sound. The Bibliothèque acoustic provides the best possible venue to showcase this magnificent instrument.

Stephen Greenbank

Availability: Encelade