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Bach: Goldberg Variations / Charles Rosen

Bach / Rosen,Charles
Release Date: 09/24/2013 
Label:  Newton Classics   Catalog #: 8802206   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Charles Rosen
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BACH Goldberg Variations Charles Rosen (pn) NEWTON 8802206, analog (75:53)

Recorded in June 1967 over the course of four days, these Goldberg s probably need little introduction for most older collectors. I recall when they were available as part of a boxed set of Odyssey LPs (probably because Columbia Records did not want them to complete with Glenn Gould’s earlier studio version) and then as a Sony Essential Classics CD. Now they are on an unrelated Read more label, and the information provided by Newton Classics doesn’t suggest that this recording has been remastered in any way. In fact, I was rather taken aback by the sound. The piano tone is not ideally clear, and even more perplexing, Rosen’s playing is accompanied by various low-volume pops, as if Newton Classics had gone back to the LPs to prepare this release. I heard the same pops in exactly the same places on two different CD players, so I don’t think the fault lies in my audio equipment. On the other hand, I’ve read several official and unofficial reviews praising this release, and not one of them has mentioned popping noises. Either I received a bad CD, my hearing is more acute than others’, or there is some third explanation of which I am not aware. If I had the Sony Essential Classics CD I would do a comparison, but I no longer purchase CDs in that series because I think that they do the LPs a sonic injustice. I did, however, do spot comparisons using online samples of the Sony CD, and, lo and behold, the same noises are there, although online they sound more like mechanical noises, such as Rosen’s pedaling or perhaps the creaking of his bench. So perhaps there isn’t a problem after all, although I do find these noises a little distracting.

It is said (although I don’t know if it is true) that Rosen did not perform this work in concert because he felt it was better suited for home study. If we are to believe Forkel’s account, they were not intended to be played as a continuous set anyway; the eponymous Goldberg would play “one or two” of them for his insomniac noble employer on any given night. Thus, perhaps there is no reason for any listener to treat them like a marathon. Given that attitude, it doesn’t seem so odd that Rosen spent several days recording them, and that the work in toto sometimes ends up sounding more like a suite than like a set of variations. This sensation is intensified by the character Rosen brings to individual variations, playing up their derivations from other genres, such as an overture in the French style, a three-part invention, a sarabande, and a gigue. One could start anywhere in Rosen’s set, and stop anywhere, and still have an enjoyable, complete listening experience. I think that is what makes this recording unique and desirable.

Rosen plays all the repeats, which is another reason why his recording initially was released in a set of LPs. (He also embellishes the repeats, but with taste and restraint.) In an era when many performers were omitting repeats so as to allow the work to fit on a single LP, this was a mark of character. His tempos actually tend toward briskness, and although the “Black Pearl” variation is given all due gravitas, Rosen doesn’t allow the black pearl to devolve into a black hole.

To my ears, Rosen’s Goldberg s are intelligent, friendly, unaffected, approachable, and gentlemanly. He doesn’t weigh the music down with an added veneer of significance. Instead, he leaves it up to the listener to make his or her own meaning out of Bach’s notes. Surely a set of Goldberg Variations as unpretentious as Rosen’s will always have a place in this world, with or without funny popping noises!

FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle
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Works on This Recording

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Charles Rosen (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1741-1742; Nuremberg, Germany 

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