February 24, 2022


Bach: Goldberg Variations. Jean Rondeau, harpsichord. Erato. $19.99 (2 CDs).

     Elegantly conceived, astonishingly involving and gorgeously played, Jean Rondeau’s new recording of the Goldberg Variations is an absolute must-have for anyone who adores this work and is interested in hearing just how moving and beautiful its manifest complexities can be. Furthermore, while no recording, no matter how splendid, will lay to rest the determination of pianists to perform the Goldberg Variations on their chosen instrument, Rondeau’s release makes perhaps the strongest case in modern times for playing this work as Bach intended it to be played – on a two-manual harpsichord, with the disposition of the variations between manuals carefully planned by the composer.

     This performance is so good that it is difficult to know where to start praising it. Perhaps with the tempo choices: Rondeau’s pacing is deliberate without ever seeming slow – yet this reading requires an hour and 48 minutes, an astonishing long running time. Consider that other recent performances have sometimes been critiqued as too long and “draggy” even though they are considerably shorter – Lang Lang’s on piano, for example, which takes about an hour and 33 minutes. But Rondeau’s rendition never feels spun-out or overextended, because its length results from one major Bach decision and one by the performer. Bach’s involves repeats: there are prodigious numbers of them, and performers inevitably choose which to observe and which to omit. Not so in Rondeau’s case: on the basis of the score itself and Bach’s notations on it, which Rondeau studied before making this recording, he accepts every single repeat, playing each of them with the same attention to pacing and detail that he gives to the initial appearance of each to-be-repeated section. As for Rondeau’s own performance decision, it relies on the famous story of the origin of this musical masterpiece, in which Bach for the first time used the variation form, which he had previously disdained. The Goldberg Variations were written to be played by harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg when Goldberg’s insomniac employer, Count Keyserling, was coping with sleeplessness. Rondeau therefore concludes that the apt use of silence is an integral part of the Goldberg Variations, and while he does not indulge in inappropriate rubato or overextend individual pieces by pausing when Bach did not indicate a stopping point, he does choose tempos that accentuate the silence between notes. And on a few occasions, notably in the concluding repeat of the original Aria, he uses moments of silence to underline the change in character of the music after it has undergone such extensive alteration in so many ways.

     The story of the origin of the Goldberg Variations – which may be, at least in part, apocryphal – raises a question that remains intriguing to this day, 280 years after Bach created the music. Were the variations intended to be soporific, helping Count Keyserling drift off to a slumber that he always found so difficult to obtain? Or were they intended to soothe the nobleman during his very extended bouts of sleeplessness, giving him something on which to focus during his sleepless hours, other than the insomnia itself? The question is not definitively answerable, but it certainly influences performances, some of which seem to revel in the repetitive nature of some of the material, while others seem to seek greater tempo variation and an overall more-upbeat approach to the music. One exceptional element of this new two-CD Erato recording is that in Rondeau’s case, the performer has found a way to lead listeners through the complexities and multiple designs of the individual variations without forcing tempo differences beyond those that Bach clearly inserted into the score through indications such as tempo di Giga and Andante. Pretty much everything in the original Aria that can possibly be varied is varied in this music, and by accentuating harmonies here, rhythms there, and of course the special characteristics of the canonic variations, Rondeau produces a splendidly varied performance that is entirely true to the music and permeated by a feeling of constant change – without any imagined necessity of overdoing differences in playing speed from one element to the next.

     This whole interpretation works remarkably well from start to finish. Notably, the famous (or notorious) Variation XXV, the longest of all, the last one in a minor key, and the so-called “black pearl” of the set, as Wanda Landowska described it, here fits perfectly into the work as a whole – in some performances it seems to stand apart from everything else. And the major-key variations that follow are neither a letdown nor a kind of coda (which is sometimes how they sound when a performer overdoes Variation XXV): the last variations are simply further thoughts on additional aspects of the original Aria, and lead eventually right back to it. Rondeau’s instrument, built in 2006 based on German models of Bach’s time, has a clean, balanced tone that allows expressive warmth as well as contrapuntal clarity to come through, and Rondeau takes full advantage of this to vary the variations’ moods as well as pinpointing their differing structure and emphasis. There is no “best” performance or recording of the Goldberg Variations – that is one of the enduring charms and miracles of the work, whose richness is a source of endless delight and surprise. But it is fair to say that any listener, no matter how familiar with Bach’s creation, will be able, if so inclined, to make deeply meaningful connections with the music by hearing how Rondeau plays it – while anyone wishing to bypass the revelatory in favor of the music’s ability to relax and soothe both mind and body will discover that in this respect as well, Rondeau’s performance excels.

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