Johann Sebastian Bach’s masterpiece of invention, the so-called ‘Goldberg Variations’ BWV 988, constitutes the conclusion of his four-part Clavier- bung and is a cornerstone of the keyboard repertoire.
The opening Aria, beautifully tranquil and ornamented, provides a ground bass upon which the 30 variations that follow are constructed: the 32-bar subject corresponding perfectly with the total number of movements (including the repeat of the Aria).
The cyclical structure is emphasised by the division of the whole into ten groups of three movements, which close with canons of increasing intervals of imitation.
With several hundred performances by the great artists of the past readily available, those familiar with Bach’s most often recorded keyboard work must surely already have their own preferred recordings and would therefore feel compelled to compare any new offering favourably (or otherwise). I feel I must add a caveat here to say that, as predominantly a pianist with an unsettled relationship with the harpsichord, my own preference would usually be to hear this work performed on the piano. It was with great interest, then, that I settled down into my comfortable armchair to listen to Malcolm Archer (Convivium Records).
Malcolm Archer enjoys a distinguished career, and is in frequent demand as a composer, organist, and harpsichordist. He has an extensive repertoire and has performed all over the world, including the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Europe. Recorded in the newly converted St Paul’s Church House, Staverton, which is also Malcolm’s home, and performed on a harpsichord by Alan Gotto (a copy of an instrument by Christian Zell built in 1728) this is an intimate and warm account. With domestic music-making the limit of what many of us have been able to aspire to during this past unimaginably difficult year I was struck, not only by an image of Malcolm spending many hours at home practising in preparation, but also of the young Johann Gottlieb Goldberg playing for Count Kaiserling during a mythical bout of insomnia.
The opening Aria has a wonderfully expressive freedom, with a sustained cantabile line, and the subtle ornamentation during the repeated sections is tastefully executed in keeping with the prevailing mood. There’s a great variety of colour as the variations progress, utilising the two manuals to great effect, keeping the sound of the harpsichord fresh while highlighting moments of interest with transparent textures. The overall pacing is well judged, emphasising each suite of three pieces and giving the listener enough time to reflect. Malcolm does not go for extremes of tempi compared with other versions, which brings poise and clarity to his playing.
Whilst I’m not overly keen on the clipped phrase endings in the first half of Variation 4 there’s much else to bring a smile to one’s face, particularly the flourishes in Variation 5, the energetic gestures and sheer panache of Variation 16 (the overture which marks the beginning of the second half of the work), and the achingly expressive interpretation of the extraordinary music of Variation 25.
Mention must also be made of recording engineer Adaq Khan, who wonderfully captures the harpsichord sound, programme notes by the endlessly fascinating David Owen Norris, and a portrait of J. S. Bach by Alison Archer included as the cover image.
Malcolm Archer clearly has a natural affinity with the music, which is not surprising given his vast experience as a fine composer himself, and having performed or conducted many of Bach’s organ, harpsichord, and choral works. This is an assured and expressive performance, full of beauty and invention, without any flashy displays of technique or personality to detract from the impact of this monumental work. Perfect listening for lifting one’s spirits.