Bach Goldberg Variations Barenboim Elatus 2564600102

Déjà Review: this review was first published in September 2003 and the recording is still available.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Diabelli Variations, Op 120
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
No recording information provided
Elatus 2564 600102 [2 CDs: 138]

Daniel Barenboim presents here a unique coupling of works in a 2-CD set: Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Each of these works is, in a way, an emblem of a certain period and certain style of music. While both are variations, they approach the basic material differently. Beethoven presents a series of variations on Diabelli’s waltz, focusing on various characteristics: “its harmony, or its melody, or even a seemingly insignificant detail, like the quick blur of a grace note with which it begins.” Bach, on the other hand, builds his variations around a 14-measure bass line; thematically, the variations have little to no relationship.

Daniel Barenboim is a consummate pianist, though he is now known more for his conducting. His recording of the Goldbergs is both personal and sensitive, and he plays this work with a focus very different from your average baroque performer. Differently by the instrument, naturally, but also by his use of legato and phrasing, which is far more romantic than baroque. But he never loses sight of the original tone of this music, and at times his playing is breathtaking. The opening aria shows a great appreciation for the depth of Bach’s music, but his playing can be a bit heavy-handed at times, such as in the tenth variation, where he eschews the legato he used so much in the initial variations and plays a hammering staccato, the left hand overwhelming the right. Barenboim is at his best in the slower, more sinuous variations, such as the 15th, with its subtle counterpoint and regular rhythm. His performance of the 25th variation is nearly perfect – he plays this at a slow tempo, over ten and a half minutes long, with subtle phrasing and dynamics that bring out the magnificence of this masterpiece.

Barenboim gives the same energy to his performance of the Diabelli variations, but goes even further, with more energy, more force. Part of this is the nature of the music itself, but also perhaps he feels more in touch with Beethoven than Bach. He has recorded a great deal of Beethoven’s music – including two complete sets of the piano sonatas – and very little Bach. There is a feeling of mastery in this work, as Barenboim shifts his tone and style according to the type of variation, and this results in a brilliant interpretation.

Note that this set contains copy-protected discs, even though they are not labelled as such; these discs may not play correctly in certain CD players, especially portable and car players.

This excellent set gives the best of two worlds: Bach and Beethoven. Daniel Barenboim’s interpretations of these two variation sets are very good, even though he is more at home with the Beethoven than the Bach. The budget price, and the unique idea of having the two works in one set, make this a recommendable purchase.

Kirk McElhearn

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