Jill Crossland – Goldberg Variations

0 of 5 stars

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

Jill Crossland (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: March 2002

On the day this CD arrived for review, the film “The English Patient” was shown on network television. In one moving scene, Juliette Binoche’s character, Hanna, discovers a grand piano intact in an empty house. She sits down to play; a man appears, drawn by the music. It is Kip, who is to become her lover, and she tells him, presciently, “My mother always said I would summon my husband by playing the piano”. And what she plays is the Goldberg Variations.

This release reverses that symbolism. It is Jill Crossland’s evident love for this work that conjures up the spirit of Bach.The care she takes with each detail reminds us how original and unusual this work is, and Bach’s harmonic innovation in general. “Listen to this piece with love,” she seems to be saying, “and Bach will always be new for you.”

Listening to this disc straight after Perahia’s award-winning Sony recording (Click here to read), my first impression was of a performance more discursive than his, something lacking his architectonic splendour. As I warmed more to her meticulous exploration of detail, however, I could better appreciate the interpretation in its own terms. Perahia’s reminded me of the clean lines and airy light of the Gothic. When I searched for an appropriate analogy for Crossland’s interpretation, it was Baroque architecture that came to mind – a wealth of decoration and display that threatens to overwhelm the structure, but never succeeds in quite upsetting it.

You will guess that Crossland’s is not an uncontroversial performance. I know of no version that takes the opening ’Aria’ quite so slowly, not even the recent Tureck (DG) that is ten minutes too long to fit on a single CD. Gould (1981), clearly an influence, is approximately as slow, but the effect is quite different without all the repeats. It is as if Crossland, aware that the succeeding variations will take the most mercurial of courses, wishes to fix a state of absolute concentration in the listener before she embarks on the journey. I have to wonder if I would have listened with quite so much patience had I not had the memory of Crossland’s live performance. I doubt that this is the recording with which to introduce someone new to the Goldbergs.

Having had similar feelings during her live performance (Click here to read)(19 October 2001, Purcell Room; this recording was made in April 1998), I am now inclined to think that Crossland intends a conscious relaxation or brightening of mood in the second half of the work. There is no doubt that the work is presented as a journey – and, as such, it lacks the single-minded vision of Gould’s two recordings or Perahia’s.

Some moments are pure magic – the elfin lightness of Variation VII, taking daringly, but successfully slowly, the filigree runs of XI, the ghostly entry of XXVI after the stately (and again very slow) ’Adagio’ variation XXV. The final build-up of tension over the last four variations is particularly fine.And notice, for Crossland, variation XXX is the final, heroic moment in this sequence, not the lead in to the coda.

The recording quality is good, clear and detailed, but at times there is a hint of hardness in the piano tone (as in X); as so often with recordings not from the major studios, it benefits disproportionately from being played on good equipment.

The Formalists said that the purpose of Art was to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange”. To my great discredit, the Goldberg Variations used to be an intractable work for me. It was Jill Crossland’s live performance that gave me a sense of intimate familiarity with the music. This is the fourth interpretation of the piece I have reviewed in a month (the others are Perahia, and two from Weissenberg(Click here to read)). I think Crossland’s view of the work has developed in live performance since she made this recording, but it is again she who restores the strangeness, the sense of inexhaustible invention, literally of infinite variation, to a piece that has become my constant companion. You would be bold indeed to have this as your only version. But listen to this recording. It will surprise you.

  • CD available from 55 Tudor Way, Hillingdon, Middlesex, UB17 9AA. 0208 579 4394
  • Also available from Tower Records

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