It is sometimes hard to qualify the addition of another Goldberg Variations to the hundred or so that are commercially available, and listeners have a host of artists to choose from, with names that are both familiar and unfamiliar to Bach devotees. Harpsichord apparatchiks will undoubtedly move in the direction of Gustav Leonhardt or Pierre Hantai, though others might still catch the eye when casting around in want of a purchase. Trevor Pinnock’s recording on Archiv is still available through various streaming services and, though over 30 years old, remains a tour-de-force recording that is worthy of re-release. Lovers of the piano might look to Murray Periah or Glen Gould, and while this review is ostensibly for harpsichordists, there remains much to listen to in theirs as well as a host of other pianists’ performances. There are also organ versions, arrangements for harp, and it comes as no surprise to see that a version for accordion has been released on the Naxos label. In fact, there are so many choices today that if one were to ask if a specific performance could be recommended, the answer should be ‘no’ since much rests on the listeners’ tastes and what they expect to gain from any particular recording.
I use ‘should’ since a new recording by Malcolm Archer on Convivium Records is a convincing rendition that has none of the dryness that might be associated with historically informed performance. Instead, it is one where knowledge and understanding is combined with a savvy musical instinct to provide a cogent and purposeful interpretation. Archer has taken the music as intended, and there is none of the tendency found in modern performances where listeners are browbeaten with what hipsters today would call ‘information overload’: the reverence for Bach leads some to take an over-detailed approach in which every note has been parsed, graded and evaluated. But this cannot ever have been Bach’s plan, especially for a work that relies as much on its humour as it does its seriousness. Indeed, we might use the analogy of a party at Bach’s house to describe the fluctuating affekt of the cycle, which the composer’s biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel explains succinctly: ‘As soon as they were assembled, a chorale was first struck up. From this devout beginning, they proceeded to jokes which were frequently in strong contrast.’ Archer is always one with a lively wit and has done much to convey the spirit of the variations by balancing seriousness with a playful, if not mischievous, sense of humour. Despite this, the playing is elegant and poised, and though I have a few minor quibbles concerning phrasing and articulation, these are little consequence. Tempi are well-judged. It is not enough to guess speeds in a cycle such as the Goldberg: they should be chosen according to what has (and what is to) come. Indeed, if I have to mention a fault with this performance, it is an error common to every recording I have heard. This is where the ultimate variation is treated as a sombre, quasi-religious ordeal of learned counterpoint rather than the knees-up Kehraus intended. Forkel again: ‘… [T]hey proceeded to sing popular songs partly of comic and also partly of indecent content, all mixed together on the spur of the moment. … This kind of improvised harmonising they called a quodlibet, and not only could they laugh over it quite whole-heartedly themselves, but it also aroused just as hearty and irresistible laughter in all who heard them’.
The recording is quality is first-rate: the instrument, an Alan Gotto harpsichord after Christian Zell (1728), is clean but very bright, loud, and has quite a fruity bass. Such a combination can be problematic for engineers, though this has been handled with skill and a good deal of care.
Overall, I would still like to hear the Naxos accordion version simply for its novelty value, but if asked to recommend any one recording, I would not hesitate to say that this particular rendition offers more than most.