7th Variation - This variation can certainly be played as a 'good time'
piece of music, but many performers add some poignancy through stretching
the music with their right hand accenting and longer note values.
Level 1 - Hill and Ingolfsdottir use very short note values which sound
rather clipped and reduce the stretching from the right hand. Schiff is
a non-starter with irritating repeats at the highest register. Another
unworthy issue comes from Tureck IV. She must have jolted the St.
Petersburg audience with a performance loaded with note-banging; this
is highly uncharacteristic of Tureck. Lifschitz is over 2 1/2 minutes;
he's just too slow; the mind wanders with his repeat of the first theme.
Dershavina sounds 'precious', and Tureck I is too soft-spoken. Although
showing command of structure, I don't find Landowska/EMI sufficiently
expressive. Vinikour tends to sound rushed as if he's trying to get
ahead of himself. Richter takes the 'plucked' route through most of
the variation; that's an approach I generally don't appreciate.
Feltsman is quite a character. With the 7th Variation, he adds a twist to
using the highest register in the repeats; he actually comes up with his
own home-spun variation in the first repeat. So if you feel like listening
to Feltsman and not Bach, this is your opportunity. It's a shame, because
Feltsman's first theme is the equal of anyone's.
Continuing along, Serkin is aggressive one moment, delicate and precious
the next; I don't think it works. Tureck/DG has at least one too many
notes and trills. Perahia sounds very jumpy to me and abrupt.
Level 2 - The excellent versions with a fine blend of joy and poignancy
come from Tureck III, Xiao Mei, Suzuki, Koroliov, Koopman, Gould III,
Gilbert, Leonhardt I, Hewitt, Curtis, Cole, Pinnock, Rosen,
Leonhardt/Teldec, Landowska/RCA, Verlet, Yudina, Valenti, and Hantai. I
just want to mention that Tureck is much better here; projection is good,
there's no note-banging, and eccentricities are absent. Two other
versions, Vieru and Nikolayeva, convey much more sadness than their
alternatives; it works well in both cases.
Level 3 - Luc Beausejour and Scott Ross give what I consider role-model
performances enhanced by a ceremonial swagger. Gould I is quite slow
with great accenting and the swagger. Gould II has no swagger, but it's
beautifully pensive with imaginative phrasing. Some may consider Jarrett's
performance to be lacking some in animation; however, I hear it as being
supremely relaxing while maintaining fine angularity and accenting.
Two more exceptional versions are provided by Ragna Schirmer and Maria
Tipo. Schirmer is flat-out gorgeous, easily the most beautiful version.
Tipo is unusual: hushed, mysterious, and pristine; the combination is
8th Variation - Exciting and powerful music with a delicate streak which
results in an infectious brew. The fastest versions, if performed very
well, provide a sense of perpetual motion that's quite invigorating. The
slowest excellent versions deliver great detail, expressiveness, and allow
the listener to savor the work.
Level 1 - Schiff is much too episodic for my tastes; the passages do not
naturally flow into one another. Koroliov is too forceful, and Nikolayeva
has a couple of awkward moments even though her performance is a slow one.
Valenti slows down during the second theme; that's a move that I don't find
to have any good trade-offs to the damage to the music's flow. Lifschitz
is very fast, carefree, and superficial; the even faster version from Gould
I maintains command of structure while Lifschitz doesn't seem to have any
Although Gould III is a fine performance, the prevalent sound interference
penetrates the music's core. Maria Tipo covers the range from note-banging
to hushed deliveries; I'll pass on it. Perahia's changes in dynamics go
too far for my tastes, and his right hand tends to disappear in the first
Level 2 - Included are Richter, Ross, Feltsman, Dershavina, Rosen, Xiao
Mei, Yudina, Hewitt, Serkin, Gould I & II, Vieru, Koopman, Jarrett, Hill,
Ingolfsdottir, Beausejour, both Leonhardts, Schirmer, Verlet, Suzuki, and
the Tureck versions except for her DG performance. Concerning the Turecks,
I and III are much quicker than II and IV; the slower two are more
expressive. However, the sound quality for the St. Petersburg performance
is a little raw and no match for DG's superb sound.
Making the repeats distinctive involves taking risk, and Feltsman has
consistently varied his repeats. However, I haven't reacted well to his
decisions which have until now mainly consisted of a higher register
regimen. With the 8th Variation's first theme repeat, Feltsman provides a
new distinction - much greater emphasis from the bass line. I think it
sounds ridiculous and damages what is otherwise an exceptionally exciting
Charles Rosen isn't far from the top level but is hampered by a strange
lack of vitality toward the beginning of the first theme repeat; it
really kills the mood temporarily. Ingolfsdottir has an interesting and
consistent hesitation which becomes the cornerstone of her interpretation.
Hill's first theme is exhilarating, but he has some moments of slow-motion
in the second theme which damage momentum without adding any poignancy.
Level 3 - There are eight versions here, and I would have trouble choosing
among them. Both Landowska issues and Pinnock's are fast with perpetual
motion the dominant element. Gilbert, Curtis, and Cole adopt average
tempos but still deliver a great deal of excitement. Tureck and Hantai
slow it down and we get to really savor the music.
Level 3 Plus - Is this allowed? Yes, because there's one performance which
seems to me have all the excellent traits of the level 3's combined. That
would be the Vinikour interpretation. Before you start thinking that Mr.
Vinikour couldn't possibly be at the top, please consider the following.
He is not your deepest Bach performing artist, but the 8th Variation is
not a deep piece of music. Also, Vinikour tends to do best with the music
of least depth and breadth of emotion which tends to breeze along. The
match here is perfect; excitement is high, momentum never goes below full
capacity, the poetry is exceptional, and Vinikour even allows me to savor
the music with an average tempo. I was very surprised when I liked this
performance so much the first time I listened in this review. But the more
I play it, the more I'm convinced that it's the version for all seasons.
9th Variation - I find the basic emotional element of this beautiful
variation to be human longing which is finally satisfied at the conclusion
of the second theme. The music well accomodates a sense of urgency,
sadness, comfort, and even ceremony.
Level 1 - Although enjoyable enough, I have to place Ingolfsdottir at the
bottom level. The pace is slow, the sound quite rich, and all it is rather
vacant. Ingolfsdottir shows no identification with any strong emotions,
up-front or subtle. Vinikour is largely in the same boat; it sounds as
if it would kill him to show a little emotion. He went from top to bottom
very fast. Feltsman again creates his own melodies on top of Bach's in
both repeats; that's a level of intrusiveness I don't think well of and he
can't compare with Bach.
Level 2 - Gould II, Rosen, Leonhardt II, Ross, Hantai, Curtis, Suzuki,
Schiff, Yudina, Perahia, Gilbert, Lifschitz, Koroliov, Gould III, Hewitt,
Pinnock, Serkin, Schirmer, Verlet, Hill, Xiao Mei, Valenti, Nikolayeva,
Dershavina, Richter, Beausejour, Koopman, and both Landowska versions.
These are very rewarding issues which don't quite reach the depth of the
music. Gould II has an interesting performance with much staccato and a
quick paced walking gait. Xiao Mei, Perahia, Hewitt, and Schirmer give
gorgeous readings of fine delicacy.
Hill has a distinctive rhythmic vitality, and Nikolayeva displays a great
deal of horizontal expressiveness. Yudina is fast, bold, and urgent; this
version would be at the top level except for some fierce sound when the
higher notes are strongly projected. Schiff is also quick and insistent
as he punches out the music attractively. although not one of the best
performances, Lifschitz comes up with *his* best so far - plenty of
momentum, expressiveness, joy, and drama. It's just that another version,
Gould I, is along the same lines and better.
Level 3 - Each of the four Tureck versions is slow paced, incisive, highly
detailed, and very comforting; if pressed to choose, I'd go with Tureck/DG
which has the best sound by far. Jarrett's performance is also highly
comforting and gives me such good feelings. Vieru is exquisitely sad,
Gould I is urgent and dramatic with a perpetual motion, and Cole's version
has 'ceremony' in its blood. Tipo comes up with another dream-like
performance which takes me to other lands. Leonhardt I is a 'role-model'
performance of total command and ceremonial pacing.
Update: The Tureck versions are doing very well; each is among the best
piano versions, and Tureck/DG is the best of all forty two versions. Among
the other piano versions, I have Schirmer in the lead closely followed by
Gould II, Jarrett, Vieru, and Hewitt. Holding up the rear are Feltsman and
Lifschitz. It is reasonable to project that Feltsman might do much better
as he progresses if he only stops messing around with the repeats.
Among the harpsichord versions, Scott Ross is the leader with Leonhardt I,
Curtis, Pinnock, Landowska II, Cole, and Gilbert close behind. Vinikour
and Ingolfsdottir are toward the bottom. I'm having very mixed feelings
about the Ingolfsdottir performances; each is enjoyable, but the sound is
too rich and she often does not supply much depth of feeling.
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