Reviewed by Steven Whitehead
There is much that could be said about Johann Sebastian Bach's 'Goldberg Variations' (BVW 988). In brief, they are surely the pinnacle of the composer's keyboard works in the key of G and arguably his greatest of all his keyboard works full stop, although one could make a case for some of his organ pieces being even greater. We start and end with a simple Aria (Ha! Simple? If it were that simple then anyone could have written it.) that Bach takes through 30 variations, grouped into miniature suites that can be played and listened to in many different figurations. Each variation is a jewel and gathered together they take us through a host of emotions but nearly all are underpinned by Bach's innate sense of joy. There are, I am told, all manner of clever things going on beneath the surface - canons and the like - but the overall impression is that of a master giving us his very best and smiling as he does it, even in the melancholic Variation 25 that sounds like a meditation on loneliness: think of a wallflower at a grand ball wondering if anyone will ask her to dance - and then, oh joy! - the prince sweeps her off her feet and we are away again. The 'Goldbergs' were written for a harpsichord, an instrument with two keyboards, so pianists can find it a challenge to get both hands in the right places on a piano. The Aria comes from Bach's 'Anna Magdelena Notebook', pieces written for his wife and the Variations were composed, so the story goes, for a pupil of Bach's named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg who was harpsichordist for the insomniac Count Keyserlingk in Dresden. Personally, I do not think the 'Goldbergs' would help me to sleep as they are so enjoyable to hear but we will let that pass. The pianist of this budget 'Essential Classics' release is the Italian Maria Tipo (born 1931) who is probably best known for her recordings of Scarlatti. Her take on the 'Goldbergs' was first released by EMI in 1986 and won the Diapason d'Or so it is certainly worth hearing although there are many, many other recordings available. For piano I recommend Angela Hewitt on the Hyperion label and for harpsichord Trevor Pinnock on DG but the main thing is to hear this beautiful, inspiring music no matter who is at the keyboard.
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