Bach: Goldberg Variations – Jacqueline Ogeil, harpsichord

Johann Sebastian BACH

Goldberg Variations

Jacqueline Ogeil, harpsichord

ABC Classics 472 164-2



There is, I feel, an intangible mercuric quality about the Goldberg Variations: every time you come back to it, you find that there is something which has previously escaped your attention, and then you experience it again and differently. It is immensely enjoyable at its many levels, and given how listeners are spoilt for choice from the number of recordings in the catalog, it’s really the quality of interpretation and performances that make their own recommendation sometimes.

For many performers, a key decision is whether to go with the harpichord for “authenticity”, or with the piano with its inifinte shades of colour and dynamism. In favour of the latter, musicologist Eva Badura-Skoda has controversially contended that instrument-maker Silbermann provided fortepianos which Bach used extensively in his Leipzig years – the very period from which the Goldbergs emerged. Nonetheless, Jacqueline Ogeil’s tips her hat into the former with his new release from ABC Classics, playing on a fine, warm-toned William Bright copy of a Johann Dulcken instrument in the acoustic of the St Ambrose Catholic Church in Woodend, Victoria.

Ogeil’s method with the Goldberg Variations is highly articulated and declamatory, even occasionally offbeat: roiling arpeggios, robust chromaticisms and ebullient rhythms.Unlike some pianists who will approach the Goldbergs as a narrative, architectural sequence of naturally evolving pieces (of whom we might include Tureck on Philips/EMI, Perahia on Sony and Gould’s second coming of the Goldbergs on Sony), Ogeil tends to favour a more confrontational approach that essays each variation on its own terms, not unsimilar to the style adopted by Gavrilov on DG, Koriolov on Hänssler and even Keith Jarrett’s jaw-clenching agogisms on ECM. And while we’re making the inevitable comparisons, Ogeil plays with all the repeats, like Hewitt and Koriolov, although she doesn’t quite approach the degree of spontaniety the other two achieve in their reprises.

The benefit of approaching each variation as its own touchpoint is that Ogeil manages to imbue each with a distinctive character, yet without compromising the polyphonic qualities in Bach’s writing. Two aspects of her playing immediately come to the fore: first, a forthright approach in her interpretations with tons of technique to burn. She imbues a polonaise quality, for example, into the first variation by giving it a strong rhythmic bounce (we shouldn’t forget that Bach was, among other things, the Polish royal composer), as with the fourth and fifth variations as well.

The other noteworthy aspect of her musicianship is in her conception of Bach’s left and right-hand dialogues. Listen to the instrumental-like trio of the second variation or the virtuoso “finger exercises” of Variation 20, and the level of thoughtful intercourse between the parts. I found myself being drawn to one voice limning out the filigree of discourse, while the other one or two voices played off this musical argument above or under it. Some listeners, though, may find her emphasis on one part at the expense of the others somewhat uncomfortable, but others, I daresay, would find this thought-provoking approach quite refreshing for a change.

This quixotic sense of adventure serves her well in other areas as well. In the all-important 25th Variation, there is a sepulchral sense of solemnity which pays off wonderfully against the 29th and 30th Variations that follow minutes later: the former in a manic barnstorming style (as good a time as any for virtuosic show-offiness), and the latter, the Quodlibet, with a lucid, mannered approach that sets you up to return full circle to the Aria reprise. Her ardently simple reiteration of this beautiful Aria goes straight to the heart. All said and done: she might not displace the stiff competition in this field just yet, but watch this name for greater things to come.

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