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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV988 (1741) [79:19]
George Malcolm (harpsichord)
rec. September and December 1961, London
ELOQUENCE 482 8439 [79:19]

Eloquence’s fine work in reissuing a swathe of George Malcolm’s recordings has answered a plea I made when reviewing the restoration of Millicent Silver’s c.1957 Goldberg Variations (see review). The question was; who is going to reissue George Malcolm’s superbly conceived recording of the Variations? The answer is, of course, Eloquence.

Silver is little remembered now but she and Malcolm were near-contemporaries and shared something of a similar approach toward the non-doctrinaire approach to Baroque repertory, though Malcolm was far more the vitalizing colourist. He recorded the Variations in 1961 on his accustomed Thomas Goff harpsichord. Whereas Silver’s recording was private, Malcolm’s was released on two L’Oiseau-Lyre LPs in 1963 and received wide international exposure.

He takes all repeats and vests them with a wide variety of registers and colours, constantly beguiling the ear and keeping any sense of predictability at bay. It was a kind of aesthetic mantra of his to ensure that the music should be kept constantly alive and the Goff was the perfect instrument for an individualist such as he, not least in the span of the variations where contrast is constant. Malcolm’s disdain for diktat on historical performance issues can be savoured in the clangorous vitality of the bass registers in variation 3, in the suavely, almost comically ponderous approach to variation 4, in the blizzard of colouristic and articulation changes in No.7, and the flourish that ends No.16. Similarly, he vests No.20 with an almost bucolic treble and allows the Black Pearl variation to flow at a natural pace unburdened by any conception of it as a locus of melancholy; instead it has a certain grace and a sure sense of mobility. No.28 typifies his use of trills, the play of left and right hand (incipiently theatrical, joyous), colour and repeats, which tend to become brighter and clarion.

His articulation is never mechanical or hard. Rhythms can be fluid and flexible and there’s often a dulcet quality to his playing that remains inimitable. He also brings a sure sense of wit and bravura to the variations. As ever the rectitudinous will frown on elements of the music-making but for most listeners this much-admired performance will prove ever life-enhancing and vividly, playfully, seriously human.

Jonathan Woolf

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