Bach: Goldberg Variations (CD review)

Gustav Leonhardt, harpsichord. Teldec 2564 69853-2.

According to J.S. Bach's first biographer, Nikolaus Forkel, Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations in 1742 for a Count Carl von Keyserlingk, who requested them to be played by his harpsichord protégé, Johann Goldberg. He requested that the pieces be of a soothing yet somewhat lively character as might cheer him up in his sleepless nights. However, authorities doubt the story, since the young Goldberg was only in his early teens at the time, and the Variations are of undoubted complexity.

Whatever the case, the Variations have come down to us in more-or-less nontraditional fashion, seldom even played as Bach intended. For one thing, Bach meant the work at the time for harpsichord (and while there are many fine recordings like this one nowadays on harpsichord, they are outnumbered by the piano renditions). More important, Bach probably meant the Variations to be played selectively, not all at once as is the prevailing custom, especially in recordings.

Gustav Leonhardt, one of the world's leading exponents of the art of the harpsichord, has recorded the Goldberg Variations several times, and I have a another disc of his--from the late 1970's on Harmonia Mundi--to which I compared this earlier, mid '60's Teldec recording. I must admit, though, the differences are of only minor note, and some of them one might attribute to the varying sounds of the harpsichords themselves and the variances in acoustics and recording quality from one session to the other.

In both cases, Leonhardt seems perfectly at ease with the music, playfully toying with the more extroverted parts and maintaining a hushed calm in the more tranquil sections. Nevertheless, one notices a slightly more lively spirit in the 1965 Teldec release, as well as a slightly brighter sound; while in the 1978 Harmonia Mundi recording, Leonhardt seems a bit more relaxed, a bit more expansive, and perhaps a bit more contemplative, with the sound in equal measure a bit mellower. I prefer the Harmonia Mundi disc, actually, but it's almost a toss-up, and both recordings provide the kind of reach-out-and-touch-it feeling that puts the instrument in your living room.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa