Reviewed by Steven Whitehead
The story goes that Bach composed what we know as 'The Goldberg Variations' (BWV 988) to help a Russian diplomat with his insomnia, giving him something soothing to listen to while he tried to drop off and with the music initially played by one Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. Nice story, it might be true and whether it is or not, the name has stuck. The Goldbergs open with an Aria in G minor that Bach proceeds to deconstruct and play with in a set of 32 movements, each based on a 32-bar bass line. If you were not aware that Bach enjoyed playing with numbers, the Goldbergs make it apparent. The variations are grouped in threes with every third one being a canon and within each three there is an opportunity for the player to show off with a dance piece or something similar. No Christian will need reminding of the significance of the number three in our theology and so while the Goldbergs may not be as explicitly Christian in the way that much of Bach's vocal music is, those who have ears to hear will take the point. Over the years it seems that every pianist of note has tackled the Goldbergs so there is a plethora of recordings from which to choose. However, Bach was not writing for the piano so this new recording by Jean Rondeau on the harpsicord stands out from the crowd. Rondeau is aiming for authenticity and in preparing for the recording at Notre Dame de Bon Secours in Paris consulted an original printed edition of the score in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Dating from the 1740s and containing markings and corrections made by Bach himself, it enabled Rondeau to make authentic choices for this recording. He performs the set of variations in its complete form, with the indicated repeats and with judicious insertion of moments of silence. As a result, the recording extends over two CDs, with the break coming after the measured, canonic Variation 15, with its enigmatic final bars. On my first listen I was not convinced by this approach, but it grew on me. There is no doubting Rondeau's skill on his chosen instrument and while you may not want to retire your favourite piano version of the Goldbergs after hearing this you may find it an interesting and enjoyable addition to your collection.
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