Bach: Goldberg Variations
Alexander Tharaud (piano)
Warner Classics 2564604914 – 1CD
Leonard Ip writes (translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Lee)
For pianists who are specialists in the Baroque repertoire, Bach does not feature centrally in Tharaud’s repertoire. While in these past years Tharaud has broadened his repertoire on record to the extent that he even recorded a disc of cabaret music, to date he had recorded but a CD of Bach’s keyboard concertos and another of concertos Bach transcribed for the keyboard. So when news of a Tharaud Goldberg emerged, I waited with eager anticipation. Recorded in April this year, Tharaud had prepared for this recording by taking a nine-month sabbatical from public performance. About this decision he said, “By taking a break from the stage…I had the luxury of examining just a few notes from every angle. It’s exciting to spend five hours on a single bar”, a claim that would whet the curiosity of listeners eager to know how much insight Tharaud could wring out from such meticulous and lengthy preparation of a warhorse piece. Therefore, I am more than happy to report that Tharaud’s Goldberg is a breath of fresh air.
In a nutshell, we can hear hints of Scarlatti—specifically, Tharaud’s Scarlatti—in this Goldberg. Tharaud’s touch is always light and fulsome, and in Scarlatti his staccatos are lively without being sharp; the same applies to the staccatos in this Goldberg. Tharaud’s clear legato and sense of line made his treatment of the slower Scarlatti sonatas beautifully memorable; the same kind of magic appears in this Goldberg’s Aria and the three minor-key variations. But Goldberg, being a set of variations, sports a huge stylistic and emotional range between variations, and here Tharaud’s richness of imagination surpasses that seen in his Scarlatti. This trait is manifest in the following aspects: firstly, his generous and tasteful use of ornamentation and the care that he takes in differentiating the ornaments every time a section is repeated, which strikes me as extremely Baroque; secondly, his brilliantly inventive manipulation of dynamics and touch; and thirdly, his control over the contrapuntal texture—the occasional emphasis on an oft-hidden line does not sound in any way contrived. His treatment makes some of the variations so lovely that I must point them out: 18th’s legato, staccato and non-legato articulations are differentiated particularly clearly; the accurate use of pedal and a warm, flowing pulse akin to Hölderlin’s “round dance” in the 19th; 23rd’s crisp staccatos; and the beautiful high single notes in 28. The French Overture-like 16th has been made even “Frencher” by Tharaud: he imparts an impromptu air over the music, exemplified in the delicious treatment of the ornaments, arpeggiations in large chords, and the tasteful rubati in the fugato. It’s great fun.
It seems to me that most keyboardists enjoy inserting ornamentations in their Bach (a notable exception being Kempff), but adding them tastefully is not easy. To my ears, Schiff on Decca is a bit crude in the way he employs his own ornamentations, while on the other hand I find Masaaki Suzuki’s (BIS) ornaments both stylish and creative—in this case however direct comparisons are perhaps not quite appropriate as Suzuki plays a harpsichord while Schiff does it on the piano. If we only take piano versions into account, Tharaud may be the most tasteful employer of ornaments I have heard, and he does it by cleverly leveraging on the piano’s innate technical advantages. I must return again to the 18th variation and Tharaud’s synthesis there of a slow pace, a hushed pianissimo and a delightful contrast betwen legato and non-legato touch. Any lack of imagination or thorough knowledge of the possibilities of the keyboard language would not have resulted in pianism of this such sensitivity (Lifschitz was this type of master, as he displayed in his Art of the Fugue recital in Hong Kong last month).
What impressed me the most about this Goldberg is Tharaud’s patience: after all, immaculate craftsmanship does not preclude spontaneity or inspiration, since both must be finally grounded on patience and self-cultivation. Tharaud’s Goldberg is a mature success.