October 01, 2020


Bach: Goldberg Variations (live and studio versions). Lang Lang, piano. Deutsche Grammophon. $24.98 (4 CDs).

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 20: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120; 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $11.99.

     Lang Lang is a fine pianist, an international celebrity, a humanitarian, and a performer who tends to be deemed above criticism in light of his celebrity status. What he is not is a particularly subtle player: he is more inclined to pound loud passages than to present them judiciously, more likely to over-extract emotion from softer material than to play it in a work’s overall context. Or at least that was the case, for quite a few years. The new Deutsche Grammophon recording featuring two separate performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations shows Lang in a new and much more mature light and marks his emergence as a pianist of attentiveness to the music as well as the technical ability to handle whatever a composer requires of him. The double recording of the Goldberg Variations, both versions from March 2020 (with the live one recorded earlier in the month), seems on the surface like the kind of overdone celebrity focus so common where Lang is concerned. The packaging of the release, which is replete with photos of Lang looking thoughtful, engaged, emotionally involved, and even genuflecting at Bach’s tomb, is a bit of wretched excess of the sort typical in celebritization. But, and it is a major “but” indeed, Lang’s playing of the music transcends the rather tawdry presentation in every way. To get one thing out of the way immediately: it would have been better, and even more interesting, if the release had included Lang playing the piano for one version and the harpsichord (which he does know how to play) for the other. The Goldberg Variations are not piano music, and whatever the value may be of hearing them on a fortepiano or, as here, a modern full-size piano, there is no possible way to present them as Bach intended them to be heard without using a harpsichord. So insistent purists and historically informed listeners will not be happy with Lang’s handling of the music. However, anyone willing to accept hearing the Goldberg Variations on piano will find Lang’s handling, or rather handlings, quite remarkable – even, at times, revelatory. They are also quite different from each other, not so much in total time (the first 16 tracks of the two versions, heard on the first CD of each, are within a single second of each other) but in the feelings communicated by the music.

     In creating a piece designed to relieve a patron’s insomnia and provide a relaxing and involving experience on sleepless nights, Bach did something so remarkable with this work that it never ceases to astound and enrapture: the Goldberg Variations are extremely structured, to the point of being formulaic, yet are so amazingly different from each other that it is difficult to realize that they are variations at all without studying the score or listening to it very carefully. Lang has quite obviously done both those things. His technical pianism is impeccable, as usual, but here it is informed by a sense of the music’s purpose and structure and of the relative importance of the different variations – including the pronounced contrasts among them – that is new for Lang and definitely represents advancement in his musical thinking. The live recording is, oddly, a bit more mannered and stiff than the studio one, a bit more focused on the flourishes and ornamentations that help make each of the variations distinctive. Certainly it is extremely thoughtful when appropriate, notably in the justly famous Variation 25, the longest by far, famously called the “black pearl” of the group by harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. And certainly there is plenty of verve in the more-showy variations, such as Variation 14, with its toccata form and hand crossings, and Variation 17, with its scales and arpeggios. But somehow the studio recording digs a bit more deeply into the emotional heart of the music. Here Lang truly plumbs some depths, not only in Variation 25 but also in the other two G minor variations and in the sarabande of Variation 13. Interestingly, and significantly in terms of Lang’s development as a pianist, none of the emotional effects is achieved by overdoing the pedaling or other capabilities of a modern piano, or by forcing sustaining notes where the harpsichord would not allow them. It is certainly true that Lang’s readings – like any reading of this work on piano – are unable to duplicate in full the effects of contrapuntal passages as played on the harpsichord, or the subtle differences between the variations that Bach marked for a single manual or two. Given those inherent limitations of the piano, however, Lang does a really remarkable job of expressing the beauties and inward focuses of the Goldberg Variations without in any way swooning, overstating, overemphasizing, or otherwise overdoing his presentations of the music. This is a cherishable recording in its own right and, in addition, a remarkable testament to Lang’s development as a performer who is starting to reach beyond technique, beyond celebrity, beyond acclaim, to connect with the greatest music in the most meaningful way.

     Lang is 38 years old, not even half the age of Idil Biret (born 1941), so he likely (and hopefully) has a long way still to grow. Biret would actually make a remarkable role model for him or any younger pianist: she is every bit as technically adept in her new recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, made (like Lang’s recordings) in March 2020, as in her reading of the 32 Variations in C minor, recorded more than 40 years ago. Beethoven’s handling of variations, for which he was famous when he was himself able to perform at the keyboard, is quite different from Bach’s and to some extent on the cusp of the Romantic era, especially in the set based on Anton Diabelli’s rather trivial little waltz tune. Biret, whose “Beethoven Edition” on the IBA (Idil Biret Archive) label was released as a set of 19 discs recorded over a 23-year time span (1985-2008), now has this 20th CD to add to the earlier ones. It is quite a performance, sparkling at some times, subtle at others, filled with amusement when appropriate (as in the variation using material from Mozart’s Don Giovanni), quite serious in the three C minor variations that distinctly recall none other than Bach. What Biret does so well here is to emphasize the highly individual character of each variation while also showing quite clearly the way in which each of them ties to the original theme – something that is by no means always obvious, since Beethoven created variations not only in traditional ways but also through modifications of expressiveness, rhythm and more. For those so inclined, there is fascinating contrast to be had between the way Beethoven and Bach handle similar forms, such as fugue, fughetta and choral prelude. Interestingly, one of the Diabelli Variations, No. 29, directly echoes the Goldberg Variations, making for a most intriguing contrast between the composers. Biret’s handling of the Diabelli set contrasts in many ways with her muscular, no-nonsense approach to the 32 Variations in C minor, which Beethoven himself played in his performing-virtuoso days and which are much earlier than the Diabelli ones: 1806 vs.1823. These are powerful, assertive variations without the intricacy of the Diabelli Variations but with plenty of opportunities to showcase pianistic skill – which Biret has clearly possessed in abundance for many decades. Interestingly, Biret has eschewed the “celebrity-ness” in which Lang revels, as is clear from the contrasts in the packaging of these two releases. The Biret one is simple, with one small photo of Biret (with Wilhelm Kempff in 1958), and with some very basic writing about the music that is not entirely accurate and is sometimes confusing and even self-contradictory (the program notes say the C minor work was recorded in 1977; the back of the package says 1975). The Biret CD (unfortunately) does not even give timings of the individual variations in the Diabelli set, although it lists the tempo indications for all of them. Here the music is very clearly the focus, even though the label is named for the performer and features her. The Lang release is quite obviously designed to focus strongly on the pianist – but thanks to the skill shown on these CDs by both these estimable players, the music ends up being paramount in both cases, which is just as it ought to be.

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