J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations
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|Audio CD, 1 May 2011||
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Evgeni Koroliov's Goldberg Variations have become a cult recording. Seldom has this monumental piece sounded so purely musical, or so simply beautiful as in his hands. This recording (licensed from Haenssler Classics) was showered with international prizes, such as Diapason d'Or and others. György Ligeti chose Koroliov's Bach as his Desert Island Disc : forsaken and dying of thirst, I would listen to it up till my last breath . Koroliov was born in Russia in 1949, his teachers were Maria Yudina, Heinrich Neuhaus and Lev Oborin. He soon settled in Hamburg/Germany, from where he developed his international career as a soloist and muchin- demand teacher. His pupils include new talent, Adam Laloum.
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The sound quality is very good, the CD cover is beautiful (a photo of a piano's strings), but nothing is perfect: the liner notes reproduce old nonsense concerning a German Count's insomnia and his prodigy-child keyboard-playing servant Goldberg etc (give me a break). The liner notes also provide the information that Charles Rosen did not perform the Goldberg Variations live. I suppose there must be a source for this information that nevertheless is not correct if we are to believe Rosen himself: in his book "Piano Notes" (see the footnote on page 164 in the Penguin edition) he tells about a recital in which he "played the Goldberg Variations of Bach, and it was taped for later broadcast by National Public Radio." Thus, Rosen played the Goldberg Variations live at least one time, and maybe the tape is preserved somewhere.
I recommend warmly Charles Rosen's recording of the Goldberg Variations, and I think that even harpsichord enthusiasts should give this CD a chance.
Then, a little while later I was poking around in YouTube for something or other of Bach, and in the recommendations sidebar this guy Evgeni Koroliov popped up, playing other Bach mega-works that I was interested in, plus the Goldberg. Although his appearance while playing suggested to me yet another over-indulgent rendition, I was very impressed with his command and intuitive control, in bringing out the best of the work. In some but certainly not all variations he played a bit less fast than Denk, and I felt that his performance could be more satisfying through having rather more periods of repose interspersing the really virtuosic variations.
So, when I came round to make a purchase, I then bought - no, not what you'd probably expect, but BOTH recordings! They appeared both to be excellent within my own terms of reference, but still gave different angles on the work.
However, when I played the Koroliov album right to the end, the general excellence of his recording was dented for me by something which to me feels almost morbid that he did with the return of the Aria. Actually my other reservation had already been that he was a bit over-precious and 'dreamy' in his exposition of the Aria at the start of the work - though not nearly as intrusively so as I've heard various big-name pianists / harpsichordists do it. But what he did here at the end was to extend that indulgent dreaminess by not observing the repeat (he did observe all other repeats, though, as far as I can tell without the sheet music) and instead to take the Aria at a really self-indulgently slow pace, and then to progressively decelerate further, so making the music very gently grind to a stop and **die**!
I can't imagine that such a way to finish the Goldberg was in the composer's mind, and to me it is a real intrusion of some melancholic or depressive issue that Koroliov - undoubtedly a very sensitive person (as indeed I myself am) - was carrying. Undoubtedly many people would like that ending, but for me it puts a bit of a cloud over the experience of listening to his performance, for, right through, I know it's going to end in a way that is, to me, morbid and depressive, and simply not Bach!
So, yes, I did buy both recordings, but, being short of space, I am not going to keep both, and it will be this one that I let go of. I'm not nipping off even a quarter-star from the other one's five-star rating! :-)
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Slow performance was good.
And very fine and good balance recording!
I hope more DELOS sacd.
Charles Rosen (1927-2012) is not as well-known these days as he was several decades ago. And even then he was probably better known for his musicological writings, primary of which was his amazingly helpful 'The Classical Style' (1971) still a model of its type. But he was always sterling pianist and his performances and recordings always worth hearing.
Rosen never performed the Goldberg Variations in recital and is quoted in George Hall's excellent liner notes as having said that it 'was meant for home study and could not be played as Bach would have intended except in solitude'. This is as may be, but it is also possible that Rosen realized that this monster of a piece is difficult to pull off in live performance, especially for a pianist even the least little bit nervous, as Rosen could be. And it says something that this recording was made over a period of a week, not in one or two or three 'takes'. This is no criticism because the variations, meant for a two-keyboard harpsichord, are a veritable bitch to play without the pianist's fingers tripping over each other. And of course each variation is complete in itself, thus made for this piecemeal recording process. In the end, though, this recording is one for the ages and has something to say that others do not. Rosen laid out the architecture of this amazingly cogent set of variations over a ground bass -- a giant chaconne, if you prefer -- with grace and sharply etched lines. There is no taffy-pulling or romantic mooning in this recording. Rosen plays it 'straight' but also makes poetry of its structure. All the lines are crystal clear without the idiosyncratic staccato playing one hears from Gould and his imitators. Recorded sound is exemplary.
This recording is definitely one for lovers of the Goldbergs and also for those coming to them anew.
Rosen explores with velvet fingering and amazing approach every single bar of this supreme masterpiece and recreates it to get a true cosmical experience.
Include this Goldberg among the greatest readings ever done. Inspired, thoughtful, expressing the cantabile lines with full rounded vitality.
Don't miss it.
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