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Bach: Goldberg Variations / Robert Costin

Release Date: 10/08/2013 
Label:  Stone Records   Catalog #: 8029   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Robert Costin
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BACH Goldberg Variations Robert Costin (org) STONE 20371 (77:39)

According to Johann Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, the Goldberg Variations were written in response to a commission from the Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, Count Kaiserling, who often stopped in Leipzig. On one trip he brought along his young harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, so that he could study with Bach. The Count said he had insomnia and needed music to Read more be played when he stayed awake at night. Evidently the nobleman was quite pleased with the pieces Bach wrote for him because he gave the composer a golden goblet filled with 100 Louis d’or . Currently, the approximate value of the gold in the coins would be just under $32,000. Although the variations were written for harpsichord, organists play them as well. On this recording British organist Robert Costain, a graduate of the University of Cambridge, plays them brilliantly on the Pembroke College Organ. The organ was originally built by Charles Quarles in 1708 and has been enlarged and rebuilt many times. In 1980, N. P. Mander Ltd. reconstructed it in order to recreate a late 17th- or early 18th-century English instrument. From the recorded sound of Costin’s playing the Goldberg Variations on this organ, they did an excellent job. The Goldberg s, BWV 988, which consists of an aria and 30 variations, was first published in 1741. The variations are derived from the bass line of the aria. Every third variation is a canon except at the end, where the last one is replaced by a quodlibet. Other types of variations are heard between the canons, including Baroque dances, a fughetta, a French overture, some ornate arias, and quite a few lively arabesques. Three variations are in G Minor; the rest are in G Major. At the end of the 30 variations, Bach wrote “Aria da Capo e fine,” asking the performer to return to the beginning and play the aria again before concluding the performance.

At the beginning, Costin plays the aria softly with studied detail, letting Pembroke’s acoustics waft the sound to our ears. Then he cuts loose and lets the catchy rhythm of the first variation bound across to us. Each of Bach’s variations is unique, and Costin plays all of them with a wide range of tempos, musical color, and dynamics. In the slower variations, we can let the cool, green, and violet tones of this historic organ cleanse our aural palates before we listen to the more highly decorated variations at which Costin also excels. There are several comparable recordings, the latest of which was released in 2010 on JAV Recordings by Stephen Tharp, who plays the Fritts Organ at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Columbus, Ohio. His technique is excellent and his tone colors varied, but his performance is only easily available on MP3 at the moment. Jean Gillou made an excellent recording for Dorian that was released in 1988, but the sound is not up to date and he does not play all the repeats. Elena Barshai recorded it for Brilliant Classics in 2007 on the Organ of St Peter and Paul’s church in Vilmergen, Switzerland. Her playing is expressive but she does not seem to have as great a variety of tone color as Costin. I really enjoyed the Stone Records disc and I think our readers will as well.

FANFARE: Maria Nockin
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Works on This Recording

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Robert Costin (Organ)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1741-1742; Nuremberg, Germany 

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