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Artek Recordings

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Gwendolyn Toth, Lautenwerk
Recorded at St. James Chapel,
Cathedral of St. John the Divine,
New York City, June 2000
Lautenwerk by Willard Martin, 1988

You might be wondering just what type of instrument is a lautenwerk. It’s probably best to think of it as a harpsichord with gut strings or as a cross between a lute and harpsichord. Actually, it is often referred to as a lute-harpsichord. The tone of the lautenwerk is rounder and warmer than the harpsichord with a shorter decay time as well. It is an intimate instrument perfect for a private environment and similar to a clavichord in terms of strength of projection. The highly esteemed early keyboard artist Robert Hill used a lautenwerk for some of his Bach performances as part of Hänssler’s Bach Anniversary Series a few years ago, and the instrument has an inherently enticing and lovely tone. Also, justification for playing Bach keyboard music on the lautenwerk is amply provided by the fact that Bach’s estate included two lautenwerks found in his home.

The lautenwerk built by Willard Martin has an 8-foot gut with two plucking positions, 4-foot brass, 2 manuals with handstops, and a pitch of A = 370. Be assured that this instrument has a gorgeous tone of sublime intimacy that offers performers an excellent opportunity to give their audiences a distinctive and compelling set of performances.

As for Gwendolyn Toth, she is one of the leaders of America’s Early Music Movement. A graduate of Yale University, she has taught at Yale, Mount Holyoke College, Barnard College, and the Mannes College of Music. Presently, Toth teaches harpsichord at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She has performed on all the different types of keyboard instruments in use during the Baroque era and proudly employs the principles of fingering, articulation, and phrasing associated with accurate historical performance styles. In addition to concertizing throughout most of the world, Toth is the director and founder of New York City’s virtuoso and period instrument ensemble ARTEK which has recorded Monteverdi’s Orfeo on the Lyrichord Early Music Series label.

With about 100 different recordings of the Goldberg Variations in the catalogs at any given point in time, a new release is not likely to sound distinguished or meet the high standards set by artists such as Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck, Andras Schiff, and a quite a few others. One area of distinction not in Toth’s favor is that I have never heard a version of the Goldbergs that is as thorough in sweeping under the rug the angst and underside of Bach’s music. Her vertical elasticity and bounce are impressive, but the horizontal elasticity is narrow indeed. Toth takes the main road with an unswerving dedication and never deviates from it. In a couple of the more poignant variations, she actually constricts the music through a mechanical sounding and rigid rhythmic flow.

In most cases, this lack of ‘breadth and depth’ would lead me to recommend taking a pass on the recording. However, the potential for other features to offset what is lacking always exists, and I find that Toth’s performances convey ample offsets. Above all else, this is as enjoyable a set of performances as I’ve heard in recent years. Toth clearly extends to us her joy of being intimate with Bach. This is not an ostentatious display of joy, but one that radiates with warmth and confidence.

Additional favorable performance features include Toth’s ability to draw out the unique sound characteristics of the lautenwerk and always keep the music sounding fresh. Another exceptional aspect is Toth’s blend of elegance and dignity that shows through in most of the variations. Lastly, even when she adopts a rigid mechanical rhythm, she manages to make it sound more distinctive than restrictive through her irresistible vertical lift.

Starting with the Aria, Toth gives us a high level of poetry and poise over a foundation of optimism. Her rhythmic flow and inner joy permeate her readings of Variations 1, 2 and 4, and I find each of them among the best performances on record.

Other noteworthy interpretations include Variation 6 where Toth brings out the unique qualities of the lautenwerk with an exquisitely delicate reading highlighted by the delicious tones of the woody soprano voice. Although delicate, Toth pushes the music forward with a compelling sense of drive and gives us a ‘one of a kind’ performance.

Variation 12 is an uplifting and joyous affair, and Toth’s optimism radiates with brilliance. In Variation 15, we meet Toth’s mechanical rhythms I mentioned earlier. Yes, it can sound rather perfunctory and clipped in the manner of a wind-up doll, but she applies a very attractive bounce and urgency to the beat that overcomes the rigidity. In Variation 16, Toth appeals with her regal rhythms and strong accenting, handling the double-dotted French style most convincingly.

Variation 21, "Canone allasettima", is my favorite of the set with its bittersweet refrains and a wonderful outpouring of hope in the 2nd Section. Toth again takes the mechanical rhythmic approach and constricts the music. But I still love her interpretation; it perfectly captures the contrasting moods, and her beat is intoxicating yet quite lively. This is one of the most rewarding and inimitable versions I have come across.

The upbeat Variations 22 through 24 find Toth possessing an inner glow that permeates this listener’s bloodstream. The "Black Pearl" Variation, No. 25, is not as successful. This is the one variation in the work that absolutely requires a strong injection of angst and despair, and Toth doesn’t offer those qualities. The playing is charming, and some might call it enchanting. However, she misses the essential nature of the piece without giving it an equally valid alternative purpose. The remaining variations go splendidly as Toth continues to highlight Bach’s joy of living.

Unfortunately, things end on a sour note. The Martin lautenwerk needs some fine-tuning at this point, and the Aria da capo suffers for the lack of it. Initially I thought that something might be wrong with my hearing, but a comparison with the opening Aria puts the problem squarely on the instrument’s shoulders and even more on the record company itself. There simply is no excuse for such a sour presentation through the medium of recordings.

Although Gwendolyn Toth’s performances are not sufficiently well-rounded to recommend it as one’s sole recording of the Goldberg Variations, her radiant interpretations represent an excellent supplement to existing versions in the music library. Toth’s readings are for sheer enjoyment, and the unique sounds of the lautenwerk add to the pleasures. I wouldn’t place the recording in the ‘must have’ category, but it isn’t very far behind. Do beware of the Aria da capo; one listen and you won’t play it again.

Don Satz


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