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.
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: