When a new recording of J S Bach’s (1685-1750) Goldberg Variationscomes along, it’s always interesting to hear what the performer makes of this iconic work, and it’s particularly intriguing to have two recordings come along at the same time. But when one is performed on the harpsichord (as Bach composed the work) and the other on the piano, the comparison gets even more fascinating. Of course there are some that would immediately dismiss a performance on a modern piano, but that would be a pity. There isn’t space here to go over all the arguments – would Bach have used the piano had it existed in his day? How does a pianist get around the use of two manuals (essentially two keyboards on the same instrument) which Bach sometimes uses to make different lines play the same note and cross each other? How much expression in terms of dynamics and pedalling is appropriate for a piano performance, given that these are not possible on the original instrument? Suffice to say, this masterpiece stands up to great variety of interpretation, and hearing different keyboard players’ solutions to its challenges only serves to reveal its greatness.
A word about the structure here – following an opening Aria, there are then 30 Variations. Every third variation is a canon (a round), although the interval between the canon’s starting notes increases each time, and then in between are virtuosic study-like variations, as well as character variations, such as a French Ouverture, a Giga and a Fughetta. I reviewed Greek-born pianist Alexandra Papastefanou’s all Schumann disc very favourably back in April, although she also has two previous discs of Bach in her catalogue.
Malcolm Archer is new to me, although he has a strong career as a conductor, organist and harpsichordist, as well as composing, particularly choral works. Archer’s instrument, built in 2000 by Alan Gotto is a copy of a 1728 instrument by Christian Zell, who in turn was a pupil of Mietke, a maker that Bach would have known well (he may even have owned one himself). The sound is bright and ringing, with a lightness suited to the rapid articulation required here. Bach’s markings of tempo are sparse, so there is plenty of scope for different approaches here – for example, Archer’s Variation 25 (marked Adagio) is just under four and a half minutes long, whereas Papastefanou takes almost twice as much time over this minor sarabande. Yet both approaches work – Archer gives this a stark solemnity, whereas Papastefanou’s take is more overtly expressive. Archer’s take, however, is not actually as quick as the timing would suggest – here, as elsewhere, he omits some repeats of sections, so his complete recording comes in at nearly 15 minutes shorter than Papastefanou’s. So in fact, Papastefanou’s more virtuosic variations, such as the jangling 28th Variation, are sprightlier. If I were to choose my ideal Goldberg recordings, it would be Mahan Esfahani on harpsichord, and Andras Schiff on piano, but there is always space to hear new takes on this, and both recordings here have much to commend. Archer brings delicacy, precision and lightness of touch, whilst Papastefanou gives us a more expressive approach, with skillfully smooth lines, and some blistering virtuosity in her faster moments.