After reading other reviews of this DVD and Koroliov's earlier CD, I decided to purchase the DVD, because it was reported to take a slightly faster pace. I was also intrigued by the possibility that Koroliov might have provided a performance that is different but as satisfying as my long-time favorite recording of this piece by Konstantin Lifschitz (Bach: Goldberg Variations).
Koroliov's performance is certainly different. He definitely achieves at least one of the goals that he set out for himself as described in the program notes. There he is reported to have mentioned Glenn Gould, Maria Yudina, and Sviatoslav Richter as his strongest pianistic influences, chiefly because they were all able to "bring out the polyphonic textures in Bach's contrapuntal works." In this respect, he is definitely their equal. His readings are extremely clean, and creatively, though not heavily, ornamented, and he uses a wide variety of touch and dynamics to clearly separate the contrapuntal lines. His tempos are true, almost rigidly so, and his diction is just as even no matter how fast or slow the tempo. In short, this is an exceedingly honest performance of the work, and the piano sound is just as even and clear. It should be in every Goldberg collection.
However, it is just not as satisfying to me as Lifschitz's youthful offering, which has only grown more dear to me as the years pass. May be I will feel differently about Koroliov's performance over time. The difference lies, I believe, in Lifschitz's extraordinary improvisatory and lyrical quality that does not sacrifice any of the clarity of line that Koroliov achieves. Even when Lifschitz applies a staccato line, he sings the thematic elements of the variation. Lifschitz also plays the piece generally faster, with more rhythmic energy in many more of the variations than Koroliov allows.
For example, some have noted the amazing velocity and clarity with which Koroliov renders Variation 5. Lifschitz actually takes this variation with noticeably greater velocity and more rhythmic power than Koroliov manages to sustain. The effect that Lifschitz leaves behind is a certain ecstatic quality where Koroliov leaves a delightful but decided lightness. With Lifschitz's tempo choices throughout, some slow, some fast, and some faster still, there is a feeling of inevitability from one variation to the next, as if they are all connected, not just by their common harmonic ground, but by a common forward-moving energy that is compellingly relentless, even in the slowest of variations, such as Variation 25.
Koroliov does a very fine job in moving quickly from one variation to the next, providing a unified approach to the entire performance. Lifschitz also uses this approach, especially over the first eight or ten variations. However, he varies this, especially where he pauses for dramatic effect when introducing a major change in tempo between two variations. Overall, Lifschitz's approach seems much easier and more relaxed to this listener without losing any precision, where as Koroliov seems to work a bit harder to exact a certain precision that there by loses some of the lyrical shape of the work he is conveying.
Still, again, Koroliov applies some remarkable invention in his voicings, especially where he will find a long lyrical line that he brings out pleasantly and unexpectedly in an otherwise more staccato treatment of a variation. In this, his choices of contrapuntal separation are sometimes quite different and refreshing from those of Lifschitz.
I suppose that one way to sum up the difference between these two very fine performances is that Koroliov's is a much more classical and even-tempered approach compared to Lifschitz's more romantic and muscular reading. Both deliver the music with evident feeling. However, Koroliov seems to carefully draw a box around the degree and variety of emotion that he is willing to express, as if afraid that excessive sentiment might destroy his finely wrought crystal of a vision. Lifschitz, perhaps because he possesses a more natural fluidity in his playing, allows a less restrained rein on his emotions without any sacrifice in elemental clarity in the music. I think it is this fine balance of powerful human emotion and intellectual rigor that draws me more to Lifschitz than to the undeniably fine performance that Koroliov delivers.