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Weissenberg’s Goldberg: A posthumous disservice

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Leonard Ip writes

Bulgarian pianist Alexis Weissenberg died January this year, and it wouldn’t seem unreasonable to see the reissue of the pianist’s 1982 Goldberg Variations a tribute. But it still got me wondering “Why this?” given the unusual choice of recordings of EMI’s National Gallery series. Stereotyping musicians is always a dangerous business, but is not always unadvisable. Weissenberg wasn’t called a maverick for no good reason: there is no denying his brilliance in his repertoire (Rachmaninov and Debussy come to mind), but he was probably having a bad day with Bach. That, in fact, is a rather mild way of putting it. Who would want their Goldberg all stiff and coarse?

Weissenberg has a good reputation for a big, ironclad technique, but nothing else than the swiftness of fingerwork stands out in this recording. Mind you, swift fingerwork alone guarantees no sparkle nor style, and uneven trills are just about everywhere. The delicate dexterity that Goldberg calls for is sorely missed. The 1st and 5th variations feature the most irritating and reasonless gearshifts; speed and loudness in the hastily played 4th variation are never complemented in articulation; pedalling in the 11th variation is audibly sluggish and fussy; fast sixteenth notes go by in the 14th variation like some thoughtless noise; and the three minor-key variations are as lacklustre and flat-faced as they can be. The metallic and constricted recording seems to be only there to make Weissenberg’s tinny tone even tinnier.

Of course, some will called this a ‘straightforward’ reading of the work, and Weissenberg’s playing is not uniformly lacking in virtue. Some faster variations (e.g. the 16th, 17th, 18th and 20th) are more sensibly delivered and should be commended for their clarity and brightness. The 13th variation is one place where Weissenberg decides to leave the music alone, and the result is enough direct and calm to let the music speak itself – but a brain surgery would be an easier thing to do than to find a singing tone in his playing.

The fact is we are not short of truly ‘straightforward’ and musical Goldbergs. If it is to be compared with, Weissenberg’s Goldberg would be revealed as even less fluent and comfortable. Let’s just not talk about the ‘depth’ of interpretation while the surface is hardly polished at all. ‘Maverick’ never is a synonym for ‘bad taste’ – it simply denotes the unusual style of a musician; Glenn Gould is perhaps the biggest maverick pianist the world has ever seen, only that he was good at Bach. If you are neither a Weissenberg fan nor a Goldberg collector, you can safely skip this one.


  • Label:  EMI 5099963872224
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  77:53
  • Year published:  2012

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

One thought on “Weissenberg’s Goldberg: A posthumous disservice

  1. Pingback: The budget series phenomenon: The Bad « Top Ear

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