BACH Goldberg Variations. Koroliov (Hanssler) – INKPOT

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Edition Bachakadamie Vol.112The Goldberg Variations
BWV 988, Clavier-bung IV (1741)


Reissued 1999

HÄNSSLER Classic CD 92.112
2 discs [39:11 + 45:41] mid-price

by Benjamin Chee
When the Russian envoy to the court of Saxony in Dresden, Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, commissioned a small harpsichord piece from his good friend Johann Sebastian Bach, with which to while away his sleepless nights, the good nobleman could not have known that the resulting set of variations, in Bach’s mathematical and artistic fashion, would become one of the most important variations in the early history of music. (It was not, however, to help cure the count’s insomnia, as so often recounted in musical anecdotes.)

Posterity now remembers this work, which Bach called Clavierbung part IV, as the Goldberg Variations after Keyserlingk’s harpsichordist, a certain young man named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg who had been a student of both Bach the senior as well as the son Wilhelm Friedmann. In view of this, we can assume that Bach’s variations were intended not just as a testimonial of his own compositional skills but to Goldberg’s musical talent as well.

The basis on which the Goldberg Variations is constructed is not the melody, as might be expected, but the harmonic architecture (or chord sequences) of the theme. Each variation comes in two halves, both of which are repeated. The first half travels from G major to D major, the second back through E minor to G major. The only exceptions to this plan are three variations (nos.15, 21 and 25) in G minor, which return home from D major through E-flat major. As with so much of Bach’s music, there are no tempo markings (except in no.15), leaving the pacing of the variations up to the individual performer.

Bach at the keyboardWhat makes this new recording interesting, in the face of competition largely dominated by several other “big” names, is the approachability of this music. You can listen to this for hours on end and not get sick of it – or what in some classical circles has been blithely called the “Desert Island Disc” syndrome.

Indeed, one can see why no less an advocate than Gyrgy Ligeti once said of a Koroliov recording of The Art of the Fugue: “Were I allowed to take only one work with me to a desert island, I would choose Koroliov’s Bach, since even if I were alone, starving and dying of thirst, I could happily listen to this record over and over again until I took my last breath.”

Koroliov is not inflexible in his thoughtful selection and adherence of tempi; there is a rhythmic elasticity coupled with a very apposite use of rubato in his playing. The Aria begins with a sense of flow that immediately establishes his approach to the music. As might be expected, he also adds ornamental improvisations in the repeats – he plays all of the repeats, including the Aria da capo – to make it just that much more interesting.

Variation No.4 does sound a little rushed, especially with the added embellishments in the repeat, but the transition to the next variation is pulled off very nicely. Variation 5, at the same speed, is pure keyboard virtuosity from Koroliov, and why not – he has flair aplenty to burn. There is a rhythmic lilt to the Gigue of Variation 7 that is contagiously pleasing to the ear.

Variation 13 is, one sense, deliberately slow, almost like a Romantic melancholy, which contrasts dramatically with the fireworks display of Variation 14, which in turn plays off the change of tempo and key in Variation 15: it evokes an eyebrow-raising effect on listeners, who aren’t concerned with the minutiae of performance technicalities, best described as “something’s very different here and I don’t know what it is, but I like it”.

The dotted quavers (eighth-notes) in Variation 16 are played effervescently with a lot of rubato and pedal, although the descending intervals of Variation 17 appear rather volatile. There is an interesting change which Koroliov makes in the repeat of the first part of Variation 18: he plays the treble part one octave higher.

Variation 19, taken at an autumnal pace, is especially beautiful; this makes the change to the presto of the next variation drastic. The triple-crochets in Variation 29 are wonderfully done, albeit Koroliov’s ornaments in the second half are unconvincingly wilful. The Quodlibet is simply lovely. The return to the Aria da capo è fine, played with much ritenuto, is unaffected and makes a fitting conclusion to the cycle.

Fractured Time: In The Studio The sound on this disc is spectacularly vivid; these recordings were made over five days in April 1999 at the Festeburgkirche of Frankfurt-am-Main. For a musician of Koroliov’s ability to give a performance of the Goldberg Variations as a whole in recital (about an hour and twenty minutes, give or take) would already take a remarkable amount of concentration. But this feat is even more astounding under recording circumstances: tackling a few variations at a time, possibly out of sequence, over a period of five days, and yet making it all sound like a reading from a single sitting when it all comes together at the end.

The documentation, even by Hänssler’s usual high standards, is superlative. In four languages, there is extensive history of the work, an scholarly analysis which is not belaboured with too many technical terms beyond the reach of the layperson (which happens too often) as well as an expository interview with Koroliov himself about his approach to the Goldbergs, in addition to the usual recording info, musician bio and facsimile reproduction of the title page.

The outstanding quality of Koroliov’s reading is the overall sense of continuity from one variation to the next, while at the same time detailing the individual temperment of each. There are times when he offers outright bravura, but these are thoughtfully balanced by moments of poetry and charisma.

Where other musicians have stamped their own idiosyncracies and left their interpretative fingerprints on the Goldbergs, Koroliov does not leave too dire an “impression”. Instead, he has given it an eloquently attractive treatment that should have listeners – composers or otherwise – returning to it again and again.

BENJAMIN CHEE remembers the fifth variation from Civilization.

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