Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Lang Lang (piano)
Recorded 15-18 March 2020 in the Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: March 2021
CD No: DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 481 8971 (2CDs)
Duration: 92 minutes
Lang Lang has had more than his fair share of lockdown. As well as the past twelve months of Covid, he was also afflicted by tendonitis in 2017, which put him out of action for more than a year. There was a period when he was able to perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations in public and he managed to make this studio recording just before the 2020 lockdown, but, for example, last year’s London date had to be cancelled.
Lang Lang has been thinking about Bach’s compendium of everything from learned counterpoint and baroque expressiveness to virtuoso high jinks and dazzling fantasy for much of his life, and this recording complements the work’s range with faithfulness and obvious affection. Lang Lang’s youthful talents for showmanship, glamour and a rather overt empathy are a little less irrepressible, anchored to a carefully considered approach to style, shape and depth, all delivered here with disarming clarity and spontaneity.
He takes the opening Aria fairly slowly, in the process laying out some generally natural phrasing and an equally direct registration that later on provides many a reminder of the music’s two-manual original. Like many performers, he tends to bring out one hand over the other in the repeats, in which he is also very generous with the decorations. Perhaps he sometimes overdoes them, but they are stylish and precise, often giving the music a marked Gallic flavour. He is sparing with rhetorical flourishes, such as bringing the grander variations to an allargando climactic close, preferring to let one emerge from the other; his pedaling is generally unobtrusive, and very occasionally he overdoes dynamic contrast (for example in the minor-key Variation 21). The recording gets depth and distance spot on – that is, it’s not too close up – and, if there are elements in Lang Lang’s performance I admire above others, they are the consistency and clarity of voice-leading – the canons that paragraph the work’s progress are beautifully crafted – and the subtlety he deploys in focusing both on the tune and the bass line, wherever Bach’s elaborations take him.
And there are some flashy fireworks, especially in the group that dominate the closing variations, and they remind you of Lang Lang’s incandescent facility and superhuman energy. He stretches the famous ‘Black Pearl’ Variation to ten minutes – it’s usually around eight – and wisely holds back with extravagant embellishment. The quasi-vocal quality he brings to the slower music contrasts well with the muscular rhythmic bounce that defines the virtuoso variations, and he is simply magnificent in the wild fantasy of the cadenza-like Variation 29. After a particularly well-judged Quodlibet (the final Variation 30), he could have been a bit simpler with the reprise of the Aria, but it is in-keeping with his special brand of communication in a performance that engages throughout.