January 13, 2022


Bach: Goldberg Variations. Peter Tomasz, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No. 2; Frank Bridge: Piano Sonata. Sally Pinkas, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     There are innumerable fine recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on piano, none of which can adequately resolve the issue of playing the work on an instrument for which it was not written – and all of which, therefore, constitute very personalized interpretations of the music. To this group may now be added the MSR Classics release featuring Peter Tomasz, who handles the music with elegance and delicacy – and little attempt to have the piano imitate or try to reproduce the sound of the two-manual harpsichord for which Bach wrote this work. From the start, Tomasz uses his modern instrument’s “piano” and “forte” capabilities to emote in a way that is not possible on a harpsichord; and he uses pedaling techniques in ways that make the music sound quite different from the way it does when taking advantage of harpsichord registration capabilities. By the time of the third variation (Canone all’Unisono), Tomasz has clearly established a sound world whose harmonic blending is foreign to Bach’s contrapuntal creativity but that is internally consistent: this is far from authentic Bach, but it is authentic Tomasz, reflective of his viewpoint on the music and his interpretative skill in putting that view across. How well this works depends on the extent to which a listener shares Tomasz’ thinking. Certainly there is plenty of fleetness in the short Variation 5, for example, but the following Variation 6 (Canone alla Seconda) seems a bit too chordally emphatic, and entries in the Fughetta (Variation 10) lack a certain degree of precision. The extended Variation 13 has a pleasantly pastoral sound (albeit with a touch of unneeded rubato); and Variation 15 (Canone alla Quinta in moto contrario), one of the three in G minor rather than G major, is affecting both in simplicity of approach and in emotional evocation – which, however, very much depends on the capabilities of the piano vs. the harpsichord. The second minor-key variation (No. 21, Canone alla Settima) is also used by Tomasz for the considerable level of emotion that the piano makes possible (although here as elsewhere, touches of rubato are uncalled for); the following Variation 22 (Alla breve), however, lacks charm. Not surprisingly in a piano-focused interpretation, Tomasz treats the final minor-key variation, No. 25 – the longest section of the work – as the climax of the whole piece, taking it very slowly indeed and with considerable pedal use. The result is that this variation sounds a bit like Schumann and not very much like Bach – and the six pieces that follow become something of an anticlimax, despite being played with enthusiasm and (in the case of Variation 28) with more attention to counterpoint than Tomasz offers elsewhere. On balance, this is a consistent and consistently personal view of the Goldberg Variations, played with technical pianistic skill and an unashamed willingness to use the modern instrument’s capabilities to bring out the feelings (if not always the structure) that Tomasz finds in the music.

     Well-conveyed emotion is the central point of another MSR Classics CD, this one featuring much-later keyboard works that are clearly intended to explore the full capabilities of the piano. Sally Pinkas is an ardent and strongly involved performer of these sonatas, the Shostakovich dating to 1943 and the Bridge to 1924. The works are quite different, and their pairing may be either jarring or revelatory, depending on a listener’s response to the music. Neither of the sonatas is as frequently heard as Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but neither is really obscure, and Pinkas gives both pieces a fresh look (and fresh sound) that will engage even listeners who already know them well. Her care with the clarity of left and right hand in the first movement of the Shostakovich, for example, is managed with exceptional precision – making the music sound almost Bach-like in balance if scarcely in other ways. Interestingly, and not to stretch Bach comparisons too far, Pinkas seems aware of the value of using less pedal than usual in this work (the opposite of what Tomasz tends to do with the Goldberg Variations). So Shostakovich comes across here as a more-subtle composer than is often the case – an impression accentuated because Pinkas pays as much attention to the quiet parts of the Piano Sonata No. 2 as to the more-emphatic ones. She also has a fine sense of pacing, which is as evident in Bridge’s sonata as in Shostakovich’s. The Bridge is a somewhat thornier work, and one whose balance inverts that of Shostakovich: the third movement of the Russian sonata is nearly as long as the first two put together, while the opening movement of the English sonata is the longest and densest of the three. The lugubriousness of much of the Bridge sonata is if anything over-emphasized by Pinkas, with the opening Lento ma non troppo section of the first movement so slow as to be essentially static. Pinkas reserves considerable power in the Bridge for the work’s finale – to very fine effect. Bridge’s tonal language is not all that different from Shostakovich’s, but the way it is used is quite distinctive – and in some ways less accessible. Bridge’s sonorities tend to be on the thick side, and Pinkas turns this reality into an emotional connection with the less-clotted Shostakovich, giving these two sonatas parallel effects that in general are scarcely evident. The pairing of these pieces turns out, thanks to Pinkas’ interpretations, to be complementary and even clever, although the sensibilities of the composers remain more different than similar. This CD is noteworthy for the excellence of Pinkas’ playing and the nuances of her interpretations – although the frequently dour nature of the music means the disc may better be heard in two separate listening sessions than in a single start-to-finish one.

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