Best recordings of JS Bach’s Goldberg variations


What are the Goldberg variations?

One of the rare works of JS Bach to be printed during the composer’s lifetime, the Goldberg variations were published in 1741. The highly technical work consists of 32 movements: a Aria, 30 variations and an Aria da Capo, which concludes the piece by returning to the starting aria. Each third variation takes the form of a canon, each increasing the interval between melodic lines, from unison to ninth. All the movements except three are in G major: variations 15, 21 and 25 (the famous “black pearl” variation) temporarily displace the work in G minor.

The first edition prescribes the work for “ harpsichord with two manuals ” and describes which variations must be played on each keyboard. However, it has since become a benchmark for all keyboardists, as well as a source of continuing debate on whether it is better to play it on the harpsichord, as Bach intended, or on the modern keyboard. piano.

Why is it called the Goldberg variations?

According to BachThe biographer of Johann Nikolas Forkel, the work was named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a young performer employed by Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling, the Russian Ambassador to Saxony. As Forkel recounts, the variations were written for 14-year-old Goldberg to be presented to his employer as a cure for Keyserling’s insomnia. Written in 1802, Forkel’s retrospective account has since been scrutinized and is, most likely, exaggerated.

JS Bach’s best recordings Goldberg variations

It is impossible to discuss the Goldberg variations without mentioning Glenn Gould’s breakthrough recording in 1955 which put both artist and work on the classical music map. The success of the album, which sold over 100,000 copies during Gould’s lifetime, drove variations into the mainstream of classical keyboard repertoire. His second recording of the work in 1981 reached over 2 million sales in 2000.

Not a single record of Bachof Goldberg variations is like any other, varying according to the instrument, the duration and use of repetitions, among other artistic choices. With hundreds of recordings since Gould, our contenders here, presented in chronological order, have been Goldberg’s best performers since the turn of the 21st century.

Murray Perahia (piano)
Sony Classical SK89243 (2000)

Tranquility oozes from Murray Perahia, whose attention to detail is also unmatched. This recording rewards listeners with Perahia’s technical excellence as well as the exciting personality it infuses into every movement.

‘Murray Perahia is one of our best Bachs pianists‘, writes BBC Music Magazine critic Nicholas Andersen, ‘His Goldbergs flow smoothly with fine linear clarity. It’s a warm and fiery game that appeals to me both more than Daniel Barenboim (Teldec) or Maria Tipo (EMI), both of which seem in different ways to take us away from the heart of the music.

Read our full review of this recording here

András Schiff (piano)
ECM 4721852 (2003) (recorded in 2001)

Twenty years after its premiere Goldbergs recording (Decca, 1982), András Schiff reviews the Variations with a performance that improves on its already impressive predecessor. In this live recording, Schiff achieves a purer sound quality and greater sensitivity in his playing. It is sometimes hard to believe that this perfect-note performance is recorded live, captured at a concert in Basel.

In the notes of the record book, Schiff defends the pianosuitability for 80-minute work: “Hands on heart – can you listen to the harpsichord that long?”. His favorite instrument, a Steinway prepared by Italian technician Angelo Fabbrini, travels with him around the world as does Rocco Cicchella, his personal technician.

Schiff has since performed the Goldberg variations to 2015 BBC Proms, captivating a crowded Royal Albert Hall with a single instrument and the 32 movements dedicated to memory.

Andreas Staier (harpsichord)
Harmonia Mundi HMC902058 (2010)

Unlike Schiff, Andreas Staier believes that the Goldberg variations lose something when it is not played on the instrument for which Bach wrote it. His harpsichord in this recording, a Hass built in Hamburg around 1734, emphasizes the structural and intellectual demands of the piece. Despite the difficulty, Staier appears very comfortable, producing an overall smoothness while accentuating the various colors of the harpsichordthe sounds.

According to Nicholas Andersen, Staier “is more conventional in his approach but no less virtuoso and entertaining”. Andersen praises him for the “quiet reflection” and the blend of “learning, virtuosity and sensual pleasure” that define this recording.

Read our full review of this recording here

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
DG 479 5929 (2016)

Isfahani’s unpredictable recording rebels against the perceived rigidity of the Variations and their structure. The opening Aria is pure simplicity, the choice to leave the theme unembellished providing space for rich growth throughout the performance. Esfahani extracts a rare sense of rhythmic freedom of movement, fostered by unusual tempo changes, which keep listeners on their toes – an impressive achievement for such a well recorded work.

For our reviewer George Pratt, the outstanding quality of Isfahani’s recording is his versatility, writing that his “touch draws a remarkable variety of sound, density and resonance from his instrument.”

Read our full review of this recording here

Igor Levit (piano)
Sony Classical 88875060962 (2016)

Full of character, the Goldberg variations in the hands of the Russian-born pianist Igor Levit is a master class in expression. This award-winning recording was originally accompanied by Beethoven Diabelli variations and Rzewski’s The united people will never be defeated, but is now available as a clean disc.

The form of variation seems to be Levit’s strong point, allowing him to push the boundaries with both his instrument and the works. “ Levit is looking for one discipline and is road-testing the notion of variation within an inch of his life, ” writes Paul Riley, “ The Aria sings without affectation as if to point out that the following does not is not on the theme. but what happens to him. And what happens is always judiciously plotted.

Read our full review of this recording here

Beatrice Rana (piano)
Warner Classics 9029588018 (2017)

In his recording made at the age of 24, in Italian pianist Béatrice Rana displays impressive maturity beyond her years. Graceful, thoughtful and full of composure, Rana’s record earned her a Classic Brit Award nomination for Best Female Artist of the Year and kicked off her 30-city tour with the work.

“Each piece of Rana’s tapestry is vividly characterized, and none is overdone, didactic, or taken at an over-the-top pace,” Church writes. The alternate comedy, grandeur and exhilarating intelligence of the up-beat variations boldly arise, while the seemingly endless melody of Variation 13 feels at times suspended in mid-flight, the lamentation of the Variation 15 weeps in the sky, and the tragedy of the “Black Pearl” (25) becomes breathtakingly deep.

Read our full review of this recording here

Lang Lang (piano)
DG (2020) 481 8971 (2 discs); 481 9701 (4 disks)

After suffering from a severe case of tendonitis, Lang lang here makes its triumphant return to classical music with a mature and thoughtful album of two Goldberg recordings: one recorded live Bach‘s Thomaskirche in Leipzig and one in a studio. One of the most flamboyant performers of classical music on stage, Lang Lang here reminds his listeners and critics of the technical prowess and musical intelligence that have contributed to his well-deserved reputation.

“I was impressed with the pristine playing and how Lang Lang wears his heart on his sleeve throughout,” writes Michael Church, “he has thought deeply about every bar, and his edifice is rock solid.

Read our full review of this recording here

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