The "Goldberg Variations" are unquestionably Johann Sebastian Bach's acme and epitome of composition for harpsichord. I've been acquiring "keeper" recordings of them since the late 1950s, roughly in this chronological order; Landowska, Leonhardt, Pinnock, van Asperen, Belder, Bonizzoni, Staier, Häkkinen. I've had CDs by other harpsichordists which I've discarded, as well as several by pianists, which I've deep-sixed. The last thing I expected, when I listened to this performance by Blandine Rannou, was to experience an epiphany, a feeling that all those others were just playing the notes but Ms Rannou is playing the Music.
Rannou plays with flamboyant rubato and expressive phrasing, but her rubato is finely, formally conceived and intentional. It's not just romantic swooning like what you'll hear on many piano performance. Every pause and every ritardando is as assertion of a phrase, and Rannou's phrasing is potently eloquent. That eloquence comes from her treatment of ornaments and graces precisely as ornaments and graces, flurries tossed off in the pursuit of the ineffable phrase. Her breakneck tempi -- faster on some variations than on any other recording -- also serve to emphasize the phrases, the "big pieces" as it were, so that nothing is just billows of little notes tapped out athletically but rather that everything is cantabile. Every variation sings. Rannou's slow movements, beginning with the opening aria, are also startlingly passionate because they are played so very slowly and pensively. This is, as the previous reviewer declared, a passionately personal and idiosyncratic interpretation of the Goldbergs. Rannou has the fingers to carry it off, and the sound engineers for once had the technology to capture the crystalline beauty of harpsichord timbres.