JS Bach Goldberg Variations BIS

Déjà Review: this review was first published in August 2001 and the recording is still available.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 
Joseph Payne (Harpsichord)
rec. 1990
BIS BIS-CD-519 [78]

The Goldberg Variations, written late in Bach’s life, is one of his most popular keyboard works. Almost every pianist and harpsichordist records this series of 30 variations framed by an aria and its da capo performance. The long-standing myth states that Bach wrote this work for a Goldberg, harpsichordist to Count Keyserling, who was insomniac. The variations were to be played to help lull the Count to sleep. But it is difficult to sleep when listening to this work, one of Bach’s most complex pieces of music for the harpsichord, and the most demanding. As Joseph Payne’s excellent notes to this recording state, this is ‘one of the most formidable works ever written for the keyboard.’

Like any recording of the Goldberg Variations, it is impossible to judge it without considering those that have come before. From Glenn Gould’s famous recordings, through the excellent performances by Rosalyn Tureck, up to the recent tour de force by Murray Perahia, most of the world’s great pianists have tried their hands at the Goldbergs. On harpsichord, some of the best recordings are by Gustav Leonhardt, Kenneth Gilbert, Blandine Verlet, Scott Ross, Pierre Hantaï, and the recording by Masaaki Suzuki released by the same label, BIS.

One difference between piano and harpsichord recordings of the Goldbergs is the choice of whether or not to play repeats. The score contains repeat marks, which mean that each variation is played twice. On the piano, many performers decide to drop some or all of the repeats, precisely because it is difficult to make them sound different – what would be the point of playing the repeats if it is only to play the same music twice. Yet, baroque performance practice dictated that performers use the repeats to modify the music – adding additional ornaments or embellishments.

This is where Joseph Payne comes in. I have listened to many recordings of the Goldbergs, and have never heard any performer do what Payne has done. Not only does he play all the repeats, not only does he add additional ornaments when playing them, but he goes much further. It seems as though Payne has appropriated the score and made it a combination of Bach’s music and his own improvisations. Many of the repeats, beginning with that in the first part of the opening aria, contain runs and riffs that approach the astounding.

The only other recording I have heard where the performer has made this kind of change is András Schiff’s recording for piano. When listening to it, I had the feeling that Schiff was not playing Bach; that he was reading too much into the music. Listening to Payne brings on the same initial feelings, but, after a few minutes, it all starts to make sense. His additions and improvisations work; while sounding strange at first, they all fit in with the tone and feeling he expresses through this recording, giving one of the most individual Goldbergs I have ever heard.

Payne is equally at home in the fast variations as in the slower variations, such as the opening aria, where he lets loose with some astounding runs during the repeats, the canon of variation 6, and the essential variation 25, whose plaintive melodies are masterfully embellished, and where Payne uses the lute stop on one keyboard in the repeats to give it an incredible sound, almost as though a lute were accompanying a harpsichord. I do feel that he plays this variation a bit too fast, but the unique nature of his performance overcomes this.

The faster variations, such as variation 16, the dazzling French overture that opens the second half of the work, are played with mastery and verve. Variation 29, with its succession of chords and runs up and down the keyboard, is a virtuoso movement. Payne, here, gives this variation a great deal of energy, although there seems to be a hint of hesitation at some points.

Payne also uses all the possible sounds of his instrument (a magnificent copy of a Flemish harpsichord, by David Jacques Way, with two 8′ manuals and a 4′ manual) to enhance the music, adding as much variety as possible. The impeccable recording (as is often the case with recordings by BIS) adds to the immense pleasure that this disc provides.

This is a unique, personal recording of the Goldberg Variations. While much of what sets it apart is Joseph Payne’s personal choice of ornamentation and even improvisation, it deserves the highest recommendation for those interested in hearing a different vision of the work.

Kirk McElhearn

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