Bach: Goldberg Variations (CD review)

Markus Becker, piano. CPO 999 831.2.

According to J.S. Bach's first biographer, Nikolaus Forkel, Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations in 1742 for a Count Keyserlingk, who requested them for his protégé, Johann Goldberg. Some authorities doubt the story as 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 considered played as Bach intended.

How is that? Well, Bach meant the work for harpsichord for one thing (and while there are many fine recordings nowadays on harpsichord, the sheer number of piano renditions far outnumber them). More important, Bach probably meant a musician to play the Variations selectively, not all at once as is the prevailing custom. Put those two considerations aside, and this CPO recording from 2002, while hardly earthshaking in its approach, is as easy to listen to as any currently available release.

Markus Becker
For this recording, classical and jazz pianist Professor Markus Becker elected to play the Variations as complete as possible (nearly eighty minutes, counting all thirty variations and the opening and closing arias) and in a pleasantly integrated fashion. That is, he plays the work as though it were a whole, a completely interconnected set of associated segments, rather than as separate and distinct parts. In matters of tempo and contrast, Becker attempts (and to a large extent succeeds) in making each variation a connective part of the aggregate sum. In other words, each variation flows comfortably, sometimes unnoticeably, into the next. Not the most exciting approach, I admit, but smooth and uncluttered, especially in the slower, dance-like passages.

With Becker's easy, polished piano style, this technique works well for a composition that can sometimes appear as a disparate set of individual show pieces. At the same time, however, the style can seem rather routine (and even a little dreamy and starry-eyed at times) compared to some more distinctive and incisive Bach playing, like that of Glenn Gould, for instance, in his several famous recordings.

Like Becker's playing, CPO's sound seems rather relaxed, too, which doesn't always show off the inner beauty of the slower movements. Soft, warm, and rounded, the tone of Becker's piano is about as diametrically opposed to the sound of a harpsichord as any instrument could be. I would have hoped for a little more definition from the instrument, but if anything the subdued audio presentation works in favor of Becker's integrated approach to the work. Everything flows readily and effortlessly from one variation to the next.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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