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This review is from: Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (Audio CD)
Bach wrote very, very few variation compositions like the "Goldberg Variations," but the one's he wrote are most memorable and monumental. Early in his career, he wrote a magnificant "Aria with Variations in the Italian Manner" (BWV989). Its repeating aria at the end along with the alternating fast/bright and slow/contemplative variations foreshadowed a model in these so-called Goldberg Variations - one of the 'summation works' Bach wrote late in his life while at Leipzig. (Angela Hewitt's spirited recording of this Aria/Variations BVW 989 is on her Hyperion CD: "Fantasy and Fugue in A Minor and Other Works").
With an ever-increasing quiver of splendid recordings of Bach's keyboard music, it is not hard to believe that Angela Hewitt is the top-selling musical artist for the British Hyperion label. And this recording of her personal favorite Golderg Variations is another gem in the series. Angela Hewitt's Goldbergs - and really all her Bach or Couperin in general - may be most simplistically characterized as having a more gentle, graceful and lyrical style. She excells on bringing out the joyful rhythms in the many Baroque-era 'dances' and as well as the inherent songfulness within the music. Her sensitive lines of melody in slower movements like the opening aria have an endearing quality. Her smooth legato line, soulful infusions, intelligent progression and tasteful ornamental touches all combine to create a delightful experience with Bach.
Miss Hewitt is also a master tonal colorist and is not shy to tactfully use the pedals and nuances of the modern piano to create a greater richness in the music - while taking care to avoid blurring her individual lines. Accordingly, she elects a wide dynamic range for this recording to elicit maximum expressivity. Where a pianist like Glenn Gould goes for maximum clarity of parts by completely avoiding the pedal (creating razor-sharp articulations), Hewitt strives to balance crisp articulation with tonal beauty through such nuances. Her creativity in ornamentation and well-chosen shifts of tempo in the repeats (which she observes here) adds stylistic interest - but without straying too far from Bach's musical intentions.
Hewitt's expressivity in the Aria is as expected, thoughtful and beautiful. However, in the famous 25th "Black Pearl" Variation, she creates a somewhat veiled and dark feel with a slower tempo that is not unlike a funeral march. Personally, I felt it a bit too heavy and dreary rather than contemplative and poignant, but such is art and individual preference. Contrastingly, in the brilliant fast variations, Miss Hewitt brings an ebulient clarity and precision that is refreshing to mind and spirit. Having said that, I think Murray Perahia (in his distinquished 2000 recording) finds a slightly more vivacious and joyful mood in these fast movements that is very special (compare the first variation). Additionally, I like the overall "mood" of Perahia's 25th Variation more than Hewitt's (introspective but not as gloomy), but Hewitt's readings overall are no less enjoyable or admirable. I have both and find something in each that is special.
Other notable Goldberg recordings come from the Bach legend Rosalyn Tureck whose recordings are often a model for any serious student of the piano. Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff has also recorded some gorgeous Bach that often has a similar "sweetness" of style as Hewitt. As for Glenn Gould, his landmark 1955/1982 recordings rightfully caused a stirring in the music world and have a striking individuality and brilliantly clear articulation of voices (assuming you don't mind his intermittent humming and the less-than-perfect sound quality). Many others have also given great performances.
Hewitt's Goldberg CD received strong ratings from from many of the top reviewers like Penguin Guide and Gramophone and stands with a few others among the finer recordings. ClassicsToday was a bit more critical, giving this CD a rating of 8/10 for Artistic Quality and 9/10 for Sound Quality (noting a tendency for emotive restraint in some variations). I mostly agree with this last (8/10) assessment - out of Hewitt's Bach discography which I have, I found her Goldbergs very enjoyable but just not quite as magical as her others. But, an additional highlight of Hewitt's Goldberg CD is surely the superbly annotated notes revealing some history of this music and Ms. Hewitt's musical insights and approaches to each of the 30 variations. The notes alone might make Hewitt's CD preferable to others if you already have a version or two you really like. All-in-all, a most attractive and admirable recording (4.5 stars); but, like other reviewers and Gramophone conclude, Perahia's sparkling version (5 stars) strikes me as very special and takes top honors here in my opinion.