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Bach: Goldberg Variations, 14 Canons / Richard Egarr

Release Date: 03/14/2006 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 907425   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Richard Egarr
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BACH Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. 14 Canons on the Ground from the Goldberg Variations, BWV 1087 Richard Egarr (hpd) HARMONIA MUNDI 907425/26 (2 CDs: 99:16)

Bach’s Aria with 30 Variations for Two Manuals, fondly known as the Goldberg Variations , has enjoyed many distinguished recordings on harpsichord, going back to Wanda Landowska’s 1933 pioneering effort recorded Read more in Paris, and now re-mastered for CD by EMI. Richard Egarr’s new release, however, joins a very short list of recordings on harpsichord to appear within the last five years—Pierre Hantaï on Mirare (“a life-enhancing experience,” Brian Robbins called it in 28: 1) and Maasaki Suzuki on BIS. Increase the sweep to 10 years, and you pick up a few more names, but perusal of the current catalog confirms that with few exceptions all of the most recent “Goldbergs” have been on piano. I was delighted, therefore, to receive this new entry from Richard Egarr and Harmonia Mundi.

A brief word on the piece for anyone new to it or to the Fanfare family: it seems that poor Count Kaiserling suffered from insomnia. Not being able to buy Lunesta over the Internet, he could have tried warm milk. But why suffer alone when you can share the misery? So, he roused his favorite harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, from his slumbers in the middle of the night to provide nocturnal sedations, one of which, if you believe this story, was Bach’s Variations. It was none other than Bach’s early biographer, Johann Nicolaus Forkel, who invented this harmless tale, now dismissed by most scholars as fabrication.

Whatever the real circumstances behind its composition, Bach’s Goldberg Variations , not unlike A Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue , is a mathematical Rubik’s Cube that appealed to his fascination with numbers, but a work that can be listened to and enjoyed with no a priori knowledge of the music’s inner mechanics. An Aria, 32 bars in length, is followed by 30 variations, at the end of which the Aria is repeated. As Richard Egarr, in his brilliant essay, points out, Aria + 30 variations + Aria = 32, thus establishing a “numerical harmony” with the 32 bars of the Aria itself. The variations are subdivided into groups of threes, with the third variation of each group being a canon (a type of tightly overlapping imitative counterpoint). In turn, each successive canon (variations 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, and 27) ascends by a step—variation 3 is a canon at the unison, 6 is a canon at the second, 9 is a canon at the third, 12, a canon at the fourth, and so on.

For reasons that can only be speculated upon, when Bach gets to variation 30, which should by all rights have been a canon at the 10th had he followed the program, he breaks the pattern and gives us instead a Quodlibet, a type of humorous composition in which well-known, popular tunes of the day are quoted and combined. Bach draws upon two melodies that would have been recognized at the time, Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir g’west , (“Long have I been away from thee”) and Kraut und Rüben (“Cabbage and turnips”). Now, if this explanation has put you to sleep, then maybe Forkel’s story isn’t so far-fetched after all.

I fell in love with the Goldberg Variations the first time I heard it, which was in Glenn Gould’s classic 1955 account on a Columbia LP. I have just fallen in love with it again in Richard Egarr’s Harmonia Mundi account. I knew I was going to love this recording from the very first note. Egarr’s harpsichord, a 1991 Ruckers reproduction by Joel Katzman of Amsterdam, is one of the most beautiful instruments I’ve heard. Totally free of the metallic jangling that afflicts many harpsichords, Egarr’s is mellow and smoothly balanced top to bottom and between manuals. Tuning is A=409. All repeats are taken, with the most subtle, self-effacing embellishments sprinkled conservatively among the repeats only when and where appropriate. But it’s not sound alone that makes this recording special. Egarr brings out in these variations a subliminal sense of repose that unifies the entire work from beginning to end. It’s like the inhaling of a deep breath with the first hearing of the Aria, the holding of it as the variations unfold, and the long, sighing exhale with the Aria’s restatement at the end. I know what Brian Robbins means by “life enhancing,” and I think it applies equally to Egarr’s performance.

The 14 “Goldberg” canons that fill out disc 2 are a fascinating novelty. Discovered as recently as 1974, these canons, like the “riddle” canons in Bach’s A Musical Offering , invite the player to solve them. They differ, however, in that, according to Egarr, they are unplayable by a single player on either one manual or two, because they require more than two hands. It was planned at first to use a second harpsichordist to realize these canons for the recording, but the idea was scuttled in favor of a more “high-tech” solution: the engineers were able to multitrack the recording, allowing Egarr to play, in effect, with himself. Didn’t Heifetz perform the same stunt in a recording of Bach’s Double Concerto way back when “digital” was a word still associated with fingers and toes?

Finally, I should mention it, only because Egarr makes such a point of it in his notes: the harpsichord is tuned, not according to the system of equal temperament, but to a 17th-century sixth comma meantone system that is adjusted to accommodate the remotest key areas. This is a highly technical subject that you can read more about when you buy the CDs. With my “Princess-and-the-Pea” sensitivity to intonation, it all sounds perfectly in tune to me.

As always, Harmonia Mundi has provided a luxurious booklet and a first-class product. Urgently recommended for a life-altering experience.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Richard Egarr (Harpsichord)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1741-1742; Nuremberg, Germany 
Notes: Composition written: Nuremberg, Germany (1741 - 1742). 
Canons (14) on the Ground from the "Goldberg Variations", BWV 1087 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Richard Egarr (Harpsichord)
Period: Baroque 
Written: ?1731; Leipzig, Germany 

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