When this arrived in the mail, my first reaction was, “Oh no, here we go again; another Goldberg Variations by an artist I’ve never heard of before.” And after being so rattled by my grievous error regarding the matter of repeats in Daniel Pienaar’s recording, I had serious doubts about reviewing another Goldberg Variations everRead more again. Well, you know what they say about getting right back up on the horse after you’ve been thrown. Had I passed on this assignment out of fear, I’d have missed out on a truly extraordinary experience. For starters, forget that this is a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It’s a disc you should have purely for the velvet smoothness and silken beauty of Sachiko Kato’s tone as captured by the One Soul Studios engineers in New York’s Klavierhaus Hall. This is simply one of the most gorgeous reproductions of piano sound I’ve heard on disc.
Now, of course, this is a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and not being one to be burned twice, I listened to Kato’s performance with undivided attention and followed the score dutifully. Here is what I can tell you. She takes the first-half repeats of each variation, but not the second-half ones. More’s the pity, because in many of the variations’ first halves, she adds some of her own embellishments that tickled me with delight. Kato is an extremely imaginative player, and I would have loved to hear her embellishments in second-half repeats.
Beyond the matter of repeats and her own embellishments, Kato’s readings of the variations are so perfectly realized in terms of tempos, phrasing, and discovery of detail, particularly in the left hand, that one marvels at the utter naturalness and fluency of the music. Notice I said “of the music,” not of Kato’s playing, because she plays with such a sense of effortlessness and ease that it’s as if the piano is having its own joyous conversation with Bach. Listen, for example to the happy mordents and smiling trill-and-mordents in the second half of Variation 5, executed with such perfection that even at Kato’s rapid velocity, not only can you hear the difference between them, your ear can discern the number of squiggles.
I’ve long admired Angela Hewitt, Murray Perahia, András Schiff, and Craig Sheppard in this music, but Sachiko Kato’s performance is truly special, and for piano versions, I think it may now be my favorite. This wonderful Japanese-born, Los Angeles-raised, Juilliard-trained artist has yet to gain much of a presence on record—Amazon, as well as her website, lists only two previous releases, both of modern music, which Kato champions—but she performs extensively throughout the U.S. and Japan. To everyone who embraces Bach’s Goldberg Variations on piano, this deserves to be heard and is urgently recommended.