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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV988 (1741)
Peter Hill (piano)
rec. University Concert Hall, Cardiff, 2017
DELPHIAN DCD34200 [78:48]

From 1723 Bach worked at Leipzig, in the employment of the Town Council. However, throughout the 1730s and 1740s his links with Dresden, though informal and occasional, were also of significance. One example of this was the sponsorship he received from Count Hermann von Keyserlingk, to whom he presented the first bound edition of the Goldberg Variations during a visit to Dresden in October 1741.

The Count's resident harpsichordist was Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756), who was a particularly gifted player, and an occasional pupil of both Bach and his son Wilhelm Friedemann. There is evidence to suggest that in due course Goldberg developed the habit of playing the Variations to help his master endure the night hours during his frequent bouts of insomnia.

Be that as it may, no formal dedication was recorded on the printed score. It seems likely therefore that Bach composed the Variations primarily for himself and only subsequently offered them to the Count and Goldberg, who was then aged just fourteen, because it seemed expedient to do so. The music also forms the final part of Bach’s great collection the Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice), a collection of exercises in keyboard playing.

Peter Hill is a noted interpreter of Bach on the piano, and while he is in the company of distinguished musicians such as Murray Perahia, Lars Vogt, Angela Hewitt, Daniel Barenboim, Andras Schiff and of course Glenn Gould in recording the Goldberg Variations on the piano rather than the harpsichord, his interpretation is worthy of comparison with any. To begin with, the recorded sound is excellent, allowing every subtle nuance of phrasing and dynamic to make its point, while enhancing the sense of atmosphere which Hill sees as a priority.

Bach begins and ends with the theme, and Hill makes a strong impression by under-stating it with a restrained dynamic and with phrasing of the utmost tenderness. During the course of the whole work the moods range more widely of course, but it is towards this under-stated sensitivity that Hill tends to default. The intimate aspect of his playing is a marked preference, and his retrained dynamics avoid any empty showmanship. That said, it would be hard for anyone to turn Variation 25 into a brooding mood of introspection, and the dexterity on display is lively and even has a virtuoso character, as it has also in the Toccata of Variation 29, especially in its close relationship between the two hands.

Other variations benefit from Hill's subtle shadings of tone, such as the staccato textures in the Fughetta of Variation 10 and the shadings of texture and dynamic in Variations 15 and 21. Therefore it is the case that even if Hill is less dramatic than, say, Perahia, his is an entirely valid approach and one which brings its own benefits.

Given Hill's overall approach, the final variation is built to reach a fully sonorous climax. However, even though there is an articulating pause before the return of the restrained theme is heard as a postlude, this does not prevent the contrast from feeling all too palpable. The determinant of a fine performance is always whether the listener feels that the music could not possibly be otherwise and, this one caveat apart, that is what Peter Hill achieves here. He also contributes the thoughtful and extensive insert note.

Terry Barfoot



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