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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Evgeni Koroliov (piano)
rec. 1999, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
PIANO CLASSICS PCL0010 [39:11 + 45:41]

Kirk McElhearn reviewed this glowingly for MWI back in 2003 when it appeared on Hänssler Classic. It was then licensed to Piano Classics in 2011, and as an avid collector of Goldbergs, I wanted to second Kirk’s recommendation and signal to readers the supremacy of this wonderful reading. It is now twenty years old but as fresh as if it had been recorded this year. This isn't a new reissue, otherwise I would be nominating it as a Recommended recording; consider it an unofficial one.

There are very few recordings of the Goldberg Variations which do not offer something new and enticing in their interpretations; of the dozen or so on my shelves, none is less than captivating, although I have bucked the critical trend by jettisoning several which I have found dull (Schiff) or self-regarding (Tureck). Nor do I have any time for the Busoni arrangement recorded by Tzimon Barto, which I reviewed rather scathingly in 2015; however those which remain are, as far as I am concerned, treasurable, from Gould to Lifschitz (two recordings, both young and mature) to the relatively recent recording by Beatrice Rana which was MWI’s “Recording of the Year” in 2017 (review) and whose excellence I heartily endorse.

There are certainly similarities between Gould’s and Koroliov’s fierce, even relentless prestidigitation and the percussive quality of their execution; both seem to want to remind the listener that the score was presumably origin written for a harpsichord or perhaps Bach’s clavichord, so the linear quality of the music takes precedence over tonal coloration. The effect is one of great clarity and concentration; the inclusion of all the repeats challenges the listener’s concentration, too, but I cannot say that I am ever aware of any longueurs in Koroliov’s playing, especially as he treats those repeats so imaginatively, such as in the repeat in No. 18, in which he plays the right-hand treble line an octave higher than usual. His tempi are elastic despite the drive of his playing, with highly expressive application of rubato – and there is always a great sense of flow and cohesion to his style. The comparative leisureliness of his reading, which stretches to 85 minutes and therefore spills over onto a second disc, is only partly due to the repeats, as although variations such as the ‘Black Pearl’ are wonderfully expansive and Romantic, those such as nos. 14 and 20 are breath-taking in their headlong exuberance.

The sound is admittedly over-reverberant but remarkably present and vivid. There is a typographical error in the track listing carried over from the original Hänssler issue, whereby the longest Variation, no. 25, the ‘Black Pearl’, is designated a 1:09 when of course it is 11:09.

My problem with recordings of this timeless masterpiece is that my favourite is always the one I am currently listening to, but I am confident that this is one of the very finest.

Ralph Moore

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