J.S. Bach

Recommended (or not) Recordings

Goldberg Variations

Main Performer
or Conductor:
Richard Egarr
Individual Works:Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
14 Goldberg Canons, BWV 1087
Format:Compact Disc
Record Label:Harmonia Mundi
Catalog Number:HMU 907425.26
Year Released/Recorded:2005
Total Playing Time:43:26, 55:49
Comments:Thomas Hubeart sadi:

Richard Egarr's recording of the "Goldberg Variations," on 2 CDs, clocks in at 90 minutes and 25 seconds (not including the performance of the 14 Canons, BWV 1087, added as a bonus on the second disc). It might seem unfair to give such emphasis to the performance time if Mr. Egarr had not called attention to this aspect of the recording himself, in a lengthy and fascinating essay on the Goldbergs which is available in Adobe Acrobat PDF format on the Harmonia Mundi website (http://www.harmoniamundi.com/Publish/document/416/HMU907425.pdf) and in an abridged format as the liner notes to his recording. This performer has a great deal to say about Glenn Gould's influence on recordings of this Bach work, and about the constraints of recording time limits in general. (And by the way, Mr. Egarr's essay on the "Goldbergs" is a much better read than Gould's, given the former's ability to write gracefully and since the latter's effort was written at the time of his 1955 recording, therefore suffering from the verbal pretensions of Gould's youthful writing--e.g., "the luxuriant vegetation of the aria's family tree," "that curious hybrid of clement composure and cogent command"--which that artist would thankfully outgrow later.)

"It is a shame," observes Mr. Egarr, "that the issue of repeats on a great many 'Goldberg■ recordings seems to have been dictated by CD length. If repeats are well-pruned and speeds kept high, 40-minute sprints though this work can and have taken place. To take every repeat should demand a performance time of 80-plus minutes."

When one considers that the 1955 Gould recording--still considered a classic--takes a grand total of 38 minutes, 26 seconds (!), it becomes clear that the point being made is not at all exaggerated. But if Mr. Egarr were simply intent on turning in a sort of "Anything you can do, Mr. Gould, I can do much slower" performance, or one on an authentically-strung harpsichord ("thoroughly re-voiced," he tells us, in "seagull feathers"), his Harmonia Mundi release would perhaps be only a pedantic curiosity.

As it happens, the Egarr "Goldbergs" are very musical. This is decidedly a reading of the "Stop and Smell the Roses" variety, with relatively little in the way of pyrotechnics on display even in portions where we have come to expect (because of Gould?) to be dazzled, such as Var. 29. Because it is clear from elsewhere that this artist is quite capable of virtuoso display--for example, in performing the "Chromatic Fantasy" on his recording "J.S. Bach Per Cembalo Solo" (also on Harmonia Mundi)--, this more leisurely pace is obviously an artistic decision. And once one shifts one's paradigms to avoid Gouldian preconceptions of how this music should sound, Egarr's reading has a great deal to recommend it. The music is able to breathe in a way that, we come to realize, is not always possible when a recording artist is trying to fit an aria and 30 variations (and the aria's da capo) onto two sides of vinyl or a single compact disc.

I would not want to give up on the two Gould recordings completely--or those of Gould's successors, both the acknowledged and the unwitting ones. But I think Mr. Egarr has given us a new conception of the "Goldbergs" which may in time prove as influential as those of the still-controversial Canadian pianist. And on its own terms, it is a lovely performance indeed. The added canons, which are of course not as substantial and weighty as the Aria and 30 Variations preceding them, are nevertheless worth hearing given that they are still relatively obscure (having only been known since the 1970s, when Bach's own exemplar of the "Goldbergs" was rediscovered). Unless one is convinced that Gould defined these variations for all time, and is sure that he or she cannot abide anything radically different from that performer's template, this recording can be highly recommended.

Jan Hanford said:

I can't recommend this recording. It is the most boring version of the Goldbergs I've ever heard.

Acknowledgements:Thank you to the following for submitting this recording and for your comments:
  • Thomas Hubeart
Date First Submitted:11/15/2006