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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 [90:24]
Fourteen Canons on the Ground from the Goldberg Variations, BWV 1087 [8:43]
Richard Egarr (harpsichord)
rec. Vereenigde Doopsgezinde Gemeente, March 2005
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 907425.26 [43:26 + 55:41]

 

This recording is, perhaps, most notable for its adoption of a system of tuning recently suggested by an early music performer (Bradley Lehman) as being the one that Bach himself instructed performers to adopt.  This ”sixth comma meantone tuning” theory has already garnered a great deal of interest and I was excited with the prospect of how it might sound – particularly when played by such a fine harpsichordist as Richard Egarr.

On first listen it is probably fair to expect that the relatively untrained ear will not immediate discern anything obviously different in the adopted method of tuning; this was certainly the case for me.  Yet, I was overwhelmed in places with the beauty and clarity of Egarr’s playing – and this of course adds credence to Lehman’s theory; it somehow sounds right.  With repeated listening, the harmonies seem warmer and the complex vertical structure more transparent.  The instrument was also re-voiced with gull quills, providing an opportunity for more subtle and wide-ranging tone and colour. Personally, I find Egarr’s relaxed but subtly expressive style highly convincing and impressive. However, some may feel that he does not provide sufficient forward momentum or the necessary rhythmic variation to hold attention throughout the ninety minute performance.  The listener craving a piercing and edgy recording need look no further than Pierre Hantaï - either his Naïve or Mirare recordings.  Overall, Egarr wins out for me, for his sensitive, nuanced and lyrical performance – beautifully captured by Harmonia Mundi.

Any real disappointment comes from Egarr’s treatment of the darkly chromatic movements, especially the famous “Black Pearl” variation (25).  Perhaps it is partly the gull quills, but the deathly atmosphere Bach surely intended to invoke is singularly lacking.  The quodlibet (variation 30) is also somewhat disappointing.  This piece should provide an uplifting, fluid and joyous climax after all the accumulated motion built up in preceding variations – but this is lost in a rather stilted performance - Murray Perahia is exemplary in his 2000 piano recording for Sony Classical – SK 89243.  However, the radiance and restfulness of the reinstated Aria provides a welcome return to the qualities so evident throughout the larger part of this recording: outstanding sensitivity, subtle but rich colour and tone, and beautifully shaped phrasing.

Egarr also includes the Fourteen Canons on the first eight bass notes of the opening Aria of the Goldberg Variations, discovered in 1974.  These very short pieces are thoroughly enjoyable. Egarr employs multi-tracking to enable him to play all required parts. For a more exciting performance I would thoroughly recommend seeking out the ensemble version led by Michael Behringer on Hänssler (CD 92.133).

Peter Bright

see also Review by Don Satz

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