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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Jean Muller (piano)
rec. Conservatoire de la ville de Luxembourg, 2015
Notes in English and German

In some respects Jean Muller is a purist in his approach to the Goldberg Variations; but in those other respects that he is not, his intention seems to be only to aid the clarity of Bach’s music. He plays a modern pianoforte - enhanced by an Instrumagic system at that – from which he extracts a crystalline translucence where each note within a line speaks with equal weight and meaning. As a result the inner parts of Bach’s counterpoint are sounded with particular, but not obtrusive, emphasis, so that they take their integrated part within the polyphony as a whole and not relegated to mere accompaniment. The warmly audible tenor middle of the Aria is a good case in point.

Muller uses rubato sparsely, preferring to push on within each movement, sometimes remorselessly, as in the brisk speed of Variations V, XIII, and XXIV for example. Instead he tends to reserve any pulling about of the tempo only for a concluding rallentando to underline the resolution and discreteness of a number of variations, except in those instances where he judiciously runs one on from another, where the rhythmic impulse of the one grows naturally from the momentum of the foregoing movement – hence the leading in from XIX to XX, and XXVII to XXVIII, although the different texture and key between XXI and XXII hardly warrants similar treatment.

With repeats taken only in the first half of some variations, the whole sequence of thirty pass by with brisk efficiency, standing in contrast to the deliberate and reflective approach to the Aria which frames the whole work, the repeat rendition at the end being taken more meditatively and quietly still (lasting 3:22 minutes as opposed to 2:53 at the beginning). When the music breaks out into more exuberant runs and scales, for example with tumbles of semiquavers, Muller avoids tripping over these or letting them run away with themselves, but spins them out with impressive, consistent poise. He also generally keeps ornamentation to the minimum indicated by the printed score, though Variation XIII is a notable exception where groups of demisemiquavers notated as equal in duration turn into a more Gallic affectation in execution with their dotted rhythms, perhaps to complement the already jazzy filigree lines of the treble part.

His performance bears some points of similarity with Glenn Gould’s in this work, in that each variation begins with a certain impetuosity which carries it through to the end, although Muller’s performance is generally not as perversely rushed as either of Gould’s celebrated studio recordings from 1955 and 1981, nor is Muller inclined to the jagged mannerisms of the latter rendition, such as excessive staccato, except in his strong attack on the Fughetta of no. X. Whereas Gould’s playing seems to be driven by a more subjective, personal probing of the music’s possibilities, Muller’s comprises more objective, consistent rigour.

In the latter’s hands, therefore, the variations sound rather cool and almost emotionless, and it is telling that the first minor key variation, no. XV, could encompass a more questioning, introspective mood, with its slurred pairs of semiquavers. Other pianists have mined even greater depths from the great ‘Black Pearl’ G minor Variation XXV, but Muller’s performance of it is a notable achievement in that, although he is less remorseless than elsewhere, his interpretation is flexible and pushes on without any danger of losing direction or tension. His reading of the whole work might, therefore, satisfy those who find Gould’s performance marred with too much of himself, and look for a more clean, impersonal approach to Bach’s multi-faceted exercise in ingenious counterpoint.

Curtis Rogers



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