Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Murray Perahia (piano)
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: January 2002
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL SK 89243
When Mendelssohn was asked what a particular piano piece of his “meant,” he responded by returning to the piano and playing it again. I have a similar response to Murray Perahia’s Goldbergs. Perahia’s interpretation is so carefully judged and architecturally impressive that, even as a reviewer, the temptation is to listen without comment. Of course, observations do accumulate that detail Perahia’s (invariably impeccable) treatment of each variation; it then seems monstrous to single out particular moments in so coherent a view.
This is the CD with which the ’new’ Perahia has come to full fruition. The ’old’, pre-injury Perahia played, above all, with poetry and delicacy; the post-accident one has a new vein of masculine heroism, aggression even, which seems almost an over-compensation for his recovery. One cannot characterise his playing here as being either; it is simply right. The initial presentation of the theme is compelling in its measured tranquillity; one instantly knows the whole will be deeply thought out, and that the thinking will, whether by effort or miracle, communicate deeply Bach’s spirituality.
As his concerts during 2001 have shown, Bach is very close to Perahia’s heart; he has been playing him with immense care and attention. One clue to the ’rightness’ I have referred to: it is almost impossible to imagine that Bach did not write these variations for a modern piano. Perahia exploits the tonal and colouristic possibilities of a ’grand’, but with discretion. So, while the ’Overture’ variation, or variation 29, is suitably bell-like and orchestral, the decorations in variation 7, 11 and 28 are as delicate as on a harpsichord; Perahia slims down the sound effortlessly in the emotionally demanding slow variations – 13, 15 and 25.
Music must be played differently for live performance and studio recording – though I refer you to Alfred Brendel’s essay in which, with characteristic idiosyncrasy of approach, he justifies live recordings. This is especially true of the Goldberg Variations because of its great length and tight construction. A concert performance must be conceived dramatically in order not to lose or bore the audience (both Angela Hewitt’s and Jill Crossland’s recent performances were very successful as dramatic experiences), but such an approach risks being over-articulated for repeated home listening. Perahia’s judgement is judicious – this is a performance not to make the pulse race but settle the heart.Perahia’s control of structure and detail is akin to walking around the inside of a Gothic cathedral looking at beautifully wrought statues or carvings each of which fits perfectly into the whole. One always feels the imprint of a powerful personality, one subordinated to Bach’s creation – just as cathedral designers carved and built with staggering individuality and precision, yet leaving themselves anonymous.
Listen to variation 4: its simplicity so often leads to routine or exaggerated interpretation; here it is declamatory without being over-resonant, clear without being clinical – perfect. Try variations 8 or 9 for Perahia’s ability to think in long paragraphs – the descending counter-melody in 8 and the canon theme in 9 shaped to form a single phrase throughout the each variation. Are you looking for flawless, crisp technique? Variations 14, 17 or 20. Authoritative control of pace? Variations 19 or 22. For the final peroration, Perahia increases the tension slowly, never forcing the issue, avoiding melodrama in the big chords of 29, so that the new themes of the ’Quodlibet’ in 30 come as a surprise, not anti-climax. Indeed, Perahia succeeds in revealing how this variation sets off in an entirely original direction, yet with the harmonic structure springing organically out of the development of 26-29.
Congratulations to Perahia for a truly ’reference’ performance and to Sony for the bright and utterly natural recorded sound. Anything less than first-class would have been an enormous disappointment – somehow it manages to be even better.