The deluxe edition of Lang Lang’s new recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations has an imposing physical presence. It looks and feels like a small hardbound book, the cover of which features a photograph of the pianist leafing through the score. Bound within are slipcases for four discs and a booklet of nearly 50 pages in there are printed liner notes in three languages (English, German, and French) plus numerous artistic-looking photographs of Lang Lang in various poses and venues. Clearly, this is a release that is intended to make a statement, and make a statement it does, both in its physical form and more importantly, in its musical content. You can view a promotional video for this release https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55hk75OgWDg.
Bach’s Goldberg Variations represent a musical touchstone for keyboard players, both for the harpsichord and the piano. Over the years there have been many recordings on both instruments (not to mention arrangements for other instruments) by many musicians, both famous and relatively unknown. Among the most memorable recordings are two by the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, which you can read about https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/07/a-state-of-wonder-complete-goldberg.html.
So, where does this extravagantly packaged recording by the relatively young Chinese superstar pianist fit in? The fact that both the studio and live recordings take up two CDs each signals us from the git-go that these are definitely not going to be swift performances in the manner of the 1955 Gould, or even the more mellow 1981 Gould, for that matter. In fact, the total timing for Gould 1955 is 38:26. In stark contrast, the first disc of Lang Lang’s studio recording is 43:29. Yes, in 1955, Gould knocked off the complete Goldbergs five minutes faster than Lang Lang takes to get through the opening Aria and Variations 1-15. Yes, you have to then switch to the second disc to hear Variations 16-30 and the reprise of the Aria. As you might guess, Lang Lang takes repeats that Gould does not. Gould’s more relaxed 1981 version clocks in at 51:14; significantly longer than his 1955 version, but still nowhere near needing two CDs to encompass. Perahia, Denk (who takes the repeats), and Schiff all manage to fit into the space of once disc. In Lang Lang’s versions, however, both studio (91:27) and live (92:56) require two CDs. Yes, Lang Lang lingers.
Lang Lang's lingering is not in itself a bad thing. In his liner notes, the pianist explains that “I’ve been studying this work for more than 20 years, and recording it has been a lifelong dream. I’ve never spent so much time on one piece. You get nearer to it, sink deeper into it, find some distance, and then go back to it again. I worked on the music every day, noting down new ideas all the time in four different scores.” His love of the Goldbergs permeates both performances. He savors this music, dives deeply into it, and wrings as much musical beauty as he can out of it. If that means his performance is going to stretch out over 90 minutes, then so be it. The net result is a performance -- two performances, in this case -- like none you have ever heard before. Slow, yes, but beautiful. Lang Lang lingers lovingly.
Of course, one drawback of his approach is that for those listeners with a single-disc CD player, a break is going to occur in the middle of the session. Those who have multi-disc players or who listen by streaming will not have this problem, but my guess is that most folks reading this review have single-disc players. On the other hand, we might do well to recall that back in the old vinyl days, to play even the superfast 1955 “Gouldbergs” necessitated flipping the LP (“long-playing” vinyl discs did not actually play all that long, we realize now in retrospect). But for those willing to take a quick bathroom break or whatever mid-Goldbergs, the reward is significant, for these are remarkable performances that take the listener deep into the music. Of the two performances, my personal preference is for the live version, which is recorded with, not surprisingly, a better sense of space. Other listeners might well prefer the studio version, which can be purchased for a lower price than the deluxe edition that includes the live version. If you really want to get into the Goldbergs, the deluxe edition is the way to go, Even folks who already own a favorite or three versions might want to give Lang Lang an audition, for he brings a unique, intense, and revealing perspective to this remarkable music. It might well be too idiosyncratic an interpretation to be an appropriate choice for those looking for a first recording (for those listeners, I would suggest the 1981 Gould or perhaps even better the Denk, whose included DVD offers an incisive and educational introduction to the music), but those who are already familiar with Bach’s masterpiece might well find Lang Lang’s version an ear-opening experience.
Pianist Helene Grimaud has put together an interesting program of works by a composer known to virtually all classical fans (and even a goodly number of non-fans) plus some works by a composer not nearly as widely known. The idea seems to be a noble one, but I do wonder how many Mozart lovers are going to be interested in a program that also includes works by a contemporary composer. I hope there are some music lovers out there who might already be interested in such a program, but for those who are skeptical (or even, heaven forbid, cynical), I will try to do my humble best to make a case for the program that Grimaud has pulled together for this enjoyable recording.
Now, if you happen to be one of those many classical music lovers who are unfamiliar with the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937), let me assure that his compositions that are included in this release are neither difficult, dissonant, nor demanding. Indeed, they fit right into the musical soundscape of the Mozart, which is presumably one of the main points that Grimaud had in mind when she conceived of this unusual pairing of composers so widely separated from each other in both time and space.
here). The net result is dramatic, but perhaps a touch too expressive. For comparison, I listened to Murray Perahia with the English Chamber Orchestra from his boxed set and played a DVD featuring Mitsuko Uchida, also with Camerata Salzburg. Both performances were expressive, more so than I remembered, not having played either in quite some time. However, neither seemed quite so florid as Grimaud. Some listeners will love her approach, others might find it a bit over the top. Different strokes for different folks.
The remainder of the program comprises music by Silvestrov, beginning with the work that gives this album its title, The Messenger. Actually, this work appears twice, first of which is a version for piano and string orchestra. The piece has a nostalgic, dusky glow that Grimaud underlines with her wistful, expressive approach, much as she did in the Mozart. Adding to the dreamlike ambience of this version are the subtle sound effects (the rustling of breezes) blended in by the sound engineer, Stephan Flock. Next up is Silvestrov’s Two Dialogues with Postscript. which consists of three short movements. Silvestrov’s intention in this composition is in sync with Grimaud’s intention in putting music from two different eras together. The Two Dialogues are first with Schubert, in a movement that Silvestrov titles “Wedding Waltz,” while the second is with Wagner, in a movement he titles “Postludium.” These are fascinating little pieces, sounding at once dreamlike yet direct. The piano seems to be recorded more distantly than it was in the Mozart, adding to the overall sensation of music originating from somewhere distant in both time and space. Interestingly, Silvestrov gives credit to both Schubert and Wagner, in fact listing them as co-composers. The third movement (the Postscript, by Silvestrov alone), titled “Morning Serenade,” continues in that same dreamlike fashion. The final selection on the album is the solo piano version of The Messenger. As she did in the Mozart, Grimaud tends to linger, to pause, and to heighten the emotional impact of the music. The ending is a quiet chord that just flickers in darkness before being swallowed by silence. It is in its own quiet way an amazing, thought-provoking musical effect. Sigh…
The overall impression made by the Silvestrov compositions after hearing the Mozart compostions is that we are now experiencing the musical mood of the Mozart works from a reflective, nostalgic, half-imagined perspective. Although the Mozart pieces are all in a minor key, they still exude energy and assertiveness, especially as performed with such flair as Grimaud brings to bear on them, while the Silvestrov pieces have a softer, more diffuse form of energy, captured in softer focus. The effect is underscored by the engineering, with the Mozart selections being captured closer more vividly and up-front than the Silvestrov, which are presented in a more diffuse, ambient sonic portraiture. The program makes sense, it satisfies both musically and intellectually, and it invites the listener to explore music both old and new with an open mind and active ear.
My first bonus recommendation is for a disc that is, sadly enough, apparently out of print. There are a few copies available out there available online for relatively high prices, but you might get lucky as I did and find a copy for two bucks in the clearance section of a used-book/media store. At any rate, Franz Liszt: Transcriptions from the Operas of Richard Wagner by pianist David Allen Wehr (Connoisseur Society CD 4199) is a highly enjoyable, well recorded recital of Liszt’s reworkings for solo piano of the music of Wagner. It includes four “free paraphrases,” a “virtuoso fantasy,” and four transcriptions. As you can well imagine from the idea of a combination of Wagner and Liszt, this is thoroughly Romantic music in a grand style, a feast for the senses. No, I would not recommend you rush out and spend thirty bucks on a copy, if you can even find one, but if you ever see a copy at a reasonable price, grab it!
My other bonus recommendation is, mercifully enough, widely available for a reasonable price. The late jazz guitarist Jim Hall (1930-2013) recorded Concierto (CTI ZK 65132) in 1975 with a dream-team roster that includes Chet Baker on trumpet, Paul Desmond on alto sax, Roland Hanna on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Steve Gadd on drums. The set list includes a couple of Hall originals, a Hall/Carter composition, one tune each from Cole Porter and Ellington/Strayhorn, and one that should be of special interest to classical music fans, a 19-minute arrangement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Tasty, tasty stuff, and very nutritious. My only quibble is with the engineering. It is very clean in the best Rudy Van Gelder style, but lacks bass extension and fullness. Still, this is a wonderful release, one that should appeal to jazz and classical fans alike.
To hear a brief excerpt from the Bach album, click here: