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Johann Sebastian Bach
Goldberg Variations
BWV 988
Pierre Hantai, Harpsichord

Review by David Cates
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Johann Sebastian Bach Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

CD Number: Mirare MIR 9945


  Bach composed what many regard as the most successful piece in the entire genre of variation sets and published it as his Part IV of the Clavier-Ubung in 1741. Early in his career we can assume with confidence that he often improvised variations on the organ as well as the harpsichord. He penned a not very interesting set of variations in A minor (BWV 989) as well as the even lesser known Sarabande con Partite in C Major (BWV 990), both for harpsichord; unremarkable works in the Bach opus. There are a number of organ chorale partitas that show his continuation of the German tradition of chorale variations and the influence of Bohm, Reincken and Buxtehude. In his last decade, he explored the genre more deeply in a number of ways: the famous Aria With 30 Variations, Part IV of the Clavier-Ubung; the "Canonic Variations" on Von Himmel hoch (BWV 769, published in 1747); and The Art of the Fugue (BWV 1080; first version written in 1742), which is a type of variation set, although in a less traditional sense. The compositional challenge must have intrigued him, for it is terribly difficult to create a compelling work with variety and structure within the confining framework of a set of variations on a theme. He must have felt ready for this great challenge in the 1740s.

The "Goldbergs," as they have come to be known due to a quaint yet apocryphal and improbable story, are the most fascinating set of variations ever committed to paper. They are variations on an ostinato bass line that defines a harmonic progression, as opposed to the conventional approach of variations on a melody--although the melody of the opening aria is so captivatingly beautiful we don't expect the developments that follow. Bach creates a complex architecture, interweaving canons (every third variation) and movements of great variety, thereby sustaining interest over more than an hour, all within the tonality of G--an incredible, unprecedented and unmatched achievement. It is a fascinating, moving, and dazzling work. 

Pierre Hantai's first recording of this work, in 1992, immediately became the benchmark performance for the harpsichord (if not the piano as well; you can hear echoes of it in Murray Perahia's fine recording on modern piano). Hantai was the first and only harpsichordist to play this piece unfettered by any physical limitations, and the only one who enabled the piece to soar - joyfully, playfully - and speak deeply. Other harpsichordists have not even come close, in my view. Merely competent performances have little to recommend them, for they remain earthbound.

Revisiting this music in 2003, Hantai gives us a performance that is not so different from his first version, whereas Glenn Gould's late recording was a completely different conception from his 1955 recording. Yet Hantai's new recording is fresher and more musical. It seems fundamentally the same interpretation, but don't be misled; I would not want to understate the growth and evolution in Hantai's playing. His first recording was lovely--refreshing, brilliant and sweet. This one is all that and much more; there is a great deal more imagination and strength. His phrases have more shape, definition and direction--the music is imbued with the freedom and purpose that a singer would give it. Surprises abound; at times the music seems to float in midair, as he stretches time with rubato and tempo. Each variation is more uniquely characterized, yet that never compromises the overall structure of the work. (Perhaps Bach's composition is intrinsically imagination-proofed.) In some variations Hantai ornaments with great imagination and brilliance; elsewhere he is completely restrained. He creates yet more interest and surprise by playing some repeats piano, as if an echo, in contrast to the forte with which he begins the movement. His separation of voices, by staggering the pluck, is quite pronounced. The way he terminates each movement is never gratuitous, and often quite surprising. Variation 16, the overture in the French manner placed at the apex of the work, is nothing short of stunning. His variety of touch and the way it is used to support and reveal the music is wondrous.

There are some spots where Hantai's freedom with tempo and meter might be a little disconcerting; he does tend to stretch time here and there--usually in a very musical way--and hurry a little in other places. I won't say I agree with all those choices. But they become more natural the more I listen. I appreciate that he pushes the envelope; it gives the listener something to think about.

Pierre Hantai is easily the most important harpsichordist of the past ten years; he has demonstrated a fresh approach to the instrument that nobody had found before. He made his mark as an intense, dazzling virtuoso; with this recording he reveals a much more profound, imaginative, and musical voice.

Highly recommended. Beautifully recorded, on a fine and pungent instrument made by Jonte Knif and Arno Pelto after a variety of Eighteenth-Century German models.



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