Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (1741-1742)
Ottavio Dantone (harpsichord)
Recorded Salone d'Onore di Casa Romei, Ferrara, 1-3 June 2003
Decca 4763016 [79:10]
Jill Crossland (piano)
Recorded Vestry Hall Studios, Ealing, UK, 24/26 April 1998
Warner Apex 49979 [73:11]
Ramin Bahrami (piano)
Recorded La Chaux-de-Fonds (CH), Salle de Musique, February 2002
Decca 476282 [80:33]
David Propper (piano)
Recorded Saint-Marcel Lutheran Church, Paris, 16-17 March 2004
Skarbo DSK 1059 [53:40]
The subject title simply refers to the locations where I acquired the four
recordings. My wife and I spent the month of June on a European trip covering
Poland, Budapest, Prague, Salzburg, Venice, Florence and Rome. Although
Budapest and Venice were our favorite stops, I found a wonderful record shop in
Rome where I bought the Dantone, Crossland and Bahrami Goldbergs; the Propper
was waiting on our kitchen counter when we returned home to Albuquerque. I
could easily digress into a "lessons learned" from our June trip, but the
purpose of this review is to report on the worth of each of the four Goldbergs.
Hopefully, I will stay on track.
Ottavio Dantone - I first became familiar with Dantone through his superb
recordings of Bach's complete Well-Tempered Clavier on the ARTS label. I
subsequently discovered that Dantone was equally outstanding in his Scarlatti
keyboard sonatas series on Stradivarius and the Handel Keyboard Suites on ARTS.
Most recently, Dantone has partnered with Viktoria Mullova in recording Bach's
Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard on the Onyx label. Not one to be restricted to
keyboard instruments, Dantone has formed the Academia Bizantina and recorded the
orchestral music of Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi and A. Scarlatti. Further, he
composed the cadenzas for a Mullova disc of Mozart Violin Concertos. A couple
of years ago, Dantone was a rising star of the early music movement; he is now
at the top of mountain along with a few other select artists.
Naturally, I had high expectations from Dantone's Goldberg Variations and have
not been disappointed. His version is easily one of the best I have heard in
recent years, and I consider it among the elite harpsichord recordings of the
Goldbergs in the catalogs. His interpretations feature a compelling mix of
power/energy, rhythmic lift, sharply etched phrasing, poignant refrains, playful
episodes, bleak terrains and totally satisfying conversations from Bach's
contrapuntal musical lines. I think it is fair to say that Dantone gives us the
full measure of Bach's soundworld in excellent sonics that are crisp as well as
well as abundantly rich.
Dantone's opening Aria and first six variations give an excellent picture of his
artistry, immersion in Bach's soundworld and a tendency to surprise the listener
as he is the opposite of a "one size fits all" keyboardist. A gorgeous
nostalgia informs his opening Aria and is followed by the unbridled joy of
Variation 1. In Variation 2, Dantone offers a hypnotic rhythmic flow, and
Variation 3 finds him thrilling us with his great speed and momentum. He plays
Variation 4 in a "plucked" fashion with a wonderful rhythmic bounce; the repeats
are beautifully ornamented. Dantone then "throws a curve" at me with his quite
slow and comforting rendition of Variation 5; I'm not complaining, because he
entirely wins me over with the beauty he elicits from the score. Dantone goes
in the opposite direction in Variation 6, giving one of the most powerful and
fastest performances I've ever heard. These are illuminating and perfectly
executed readings that are a treasure to listen to.
Not wanting to be overly repetitive, here are just a few more highlights of
Variation 13 - One of Bach's greatest bitter-sweet keyboard pieces, Dantone
captures its dual nature while doing a masterful job of conveying the music's
strong rhetorical elements.
Variation 16 - I love heroic French Overtures with double-dotted rhythmic
figures in the first section and exciting fugues in the second. No. 16 is one
of Bach's best and allows Dantone to show off his ceremonial attributes and
Variation 21 - A perfect example of how Bach conveys great drama and tension
without ostentatious displays. Dantone gives the music an aching tenderness
that is mesmerizing followed by spiritual enlightenment in the 2nd section.
Variation 28 - "The Variation of Trills" would be a fine nickname for this
piece, and Dantone forms them perfectly while managing to give each voice its
full measure in the highly interesting conversational flow.
Variation 29 - There is so much going in in this toccata: exciting arpeggios
that seem to last forever, jack-hammer beats from the left hand, double-octave
leaps from the right hand and sharp streams of tension-filled sounds that wing
their way in a myriad of directions. Dantone gives this toccata the wild
treatment it deserves, but he is always in control of the proceedings.
Actually, I can't think of another version that invigorates me as much as the
I hate to put any reservations on Dantone's performances, but there is one I
need to relate and it involves the matter of repeats. The Goldberg's Aria and
each variation were composed in the typical of-the-time AABB format - play the
first section twice and then the second section twice. Bach requires the
repeats but is silent as how to approach them. This leaves performers with
quite a challenge. The "easy way out" is to skip them altogether, and there is
a group of dedicated Bach enthusiasts who prefer the Goldbergs shorn of the
repeats. Dantone is not among them, as he plays each one except for the two in
the Aria da capo.
The next step is to decide how to differentiate the repeats from their first
statements and the extent of differentiation. Common approaches would include
changes in tempo, moving to a higher or lower register on the keyboard, the use
of hesitations, the staggering of musical lines, deviations in volume,
ornamentation/trills, changes along the legato-staccato spectrum and many more.
Dantone's preferred method is to employ highly ornamented repeats. From my
perspective, he sometimes goes overboard with this additional notes and trills
to the degree that they call attention to themselves and disrupt the musical
flow. The sole time that he veers from this approach is in Variation 19 where
his repeats are much louder than his first statements. I shared my concerns
with a few other Bach enthusiasts that I respect highly; each one responded that
Dantone's repeats were enjoyable and expressive. So I appear to hold the
minority view and can only suggest that interested readers sample
the opening Aria and Variation 1. If you enjoy, then you're "set to go".
Don't let the fact that I have a little bias against additional ornamentation
deter you from acquiring such a compelling version of the Goldbergs.
Jill Crossland - A young adult keyboard artist, Crossland received her training
at Chethams and the Royal Northern College of Manchester, England; she also was
instructed by Paul Badura-Skoda in Vienna. I first became familiar with her
playing through a 2005 Divine Arts disc where she performs Bach, Scarlatti and
Handel on the Jirikowsky fortepiano housed at Restoration House in historic
Rochester. I found her performances highly enjoyable, although her emphasis on
pushing the music forward in a demonstrative fashion did become rather heavy at
times on the ears. More recently, I was sent an advance copy of Crossland's
recording of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier Bk. 1 that I currently consider among
the best versions I have ever heard; this set should soon enter the market on
the Signum label, and I strongly recommend that readers snap it up quickly.
Given the above, I was looking forward greatly to hearing Crossland's 1998
account of the Goldberg Variations. However, I didn't take into consideration
one important factor - age and maturity. Put another way, the 2005/06 Crossland
is a significantly improved artist over the 1998 version. Don't get me wrong.
There is much to enjoy from her Goldbergs. Like Dantone, she is not
predictable; actually, one never knows what she will do next. Tempos can be
extremely slow or much faster than the norm, her attachment to any particular
legato/staccato phrasing is only momentary, and she mixes her usual
demonstrative personality with a calming quality quite unlike anything I would
have expected from her. So, what we have here are entirely interesting
interpretations that tend to fall into the "hit or miss" category.
My disappointment with Crossland covers three considerations. First, the
stunning mastery that she now displays concerning color and texture was only in
the formative stage back in 1998. Second, there are a few times when
Crossland's upper voice gets submerged by the lower voices; this definitely
damages voice dialogue. Third, she is occasionally a "note blaster" in that she
plays a musical line (usually lower voice) with such exaggerated power and
volume that the dialogue is totally destroyed as well as being very jarring to
the eardrums. Sonics are on the dry side but perfectly acceptable. Overall,
Crossland is a "keeper", but the above reservations do keep it from being a
favored version. I'd say the performance is more valuable to the seasoned
collector than the novice; you don't want this rather strange Crossland disc as
your only recording of the Goldbergs.
Ramin Bahrami - Another young adult, Bahrami was born in Teheran in 1976. A
pupil of Alexis Weissenberg, Andras Schiff, Robert Levin and Rosalyn Tureck,
Bahrami's concertizing and recordings have concentrated on Bach's keyboard
music. Tureck, in particular, has been a major inspiration to Bahrami, and he
dedicates his Goldbergs disc to her to the extent that he refers to her as "the
voice of Bach".
The above quote is rather surprising in that Bahrami's style is quite distant
from Tureck's. She is all about depth of expression and clarity of musical
lines, while Bahrami is a role-model of virtuosity. Tureck gives Bach's music
the x-ray treatment; Bahrami prefers tremendous streams of sound. He possesses
amazing technical skills highlighted by the most flexible and liquid arpeggios
and trills I've ever heard in this repertoire. Needless to say, Bahrami turns
on the speed burners at every opportunity; he also conveys a fine sense of
poignancy in the slower variations. However, it's his virtuosity that most
impresses this reviewer. The interpretations themselves are not in the elite
category. The soundstage is a little too "wet" for my tastes, but I think the
majority of listeners would find the sonics excellent.
David Propper - Yet another relatively unknown young pianist recording on a
somewhat obscure record label. However, Propper gives an excellent "no-frills"
set of performances that I find the most satisfying of the four being reviewed.
It is such a pleasure to listen to an interpretation that at all times conveys
the essence of Bach without trying to come up with ways to impress the audience
and appear distinctive.
Propper "nails" each piece of the work with fine articulation, inflections,
technique, rhythmic patterns, and emotional content. Best of all is the
fantastic soundstage that offers great detail in a spacious environment, and
Propper uses the wealth of detail to provide a wonderful clarity of diction
where each musical line is easily identified and followed. He does skip most of
the repeats, but I didn't mind at all.
Don's Conclusions: The Dantone and Propper discs are the pick of the litter and
among the best recordings of the Goldbergs on the market. Crossland misses the
mark too often to be considered in elite company, but I'll keep her recording
for its many illuminating features. Bahrami is great fun to listen to with all
his impressive wizardry, but it's more about Bahrami than Bach.
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