Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (recorded 1967)
The Six Partitas, BWV 825-830
French Overture in B minor, BWV 831
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 903
Italian Concerto, BWV 971
EMI CZS 5 74144 2 (3 CDs)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (recorded 1981)
EMI CDE 5 74953 2
Alexis Weissenberg (piano)
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: January 2002
CD No: EMI CZS 5 74144 2 - See below
If you like Bach on the piano straight, honest and unadorned, then Alexis Weissenberg is your man. There is much to admire on these four discs. Rumanian-born (in 1929), Weissenberg has long been a French citizen. At his best the clarity of his Bach is reminiscent of the French tradition as exemplified by Marcelle Meyer. Weissenberg’s career is deceptive. He took a ten-year study-break between 1956 and 1966; it’s fair then to represent his playing as being from an older generation. You will not find, therefore, the nuances and sophistication of today’s Bach-players for whom neo-Romantic or, indeed, a thoroughly attendant style, has become typical. What you do find is admirable explicitness.
The two traversals of the Goldbergs do not differ greatly, the later version has more equilibrium, the ’Aria’ and the slower variations being less slow (overall 77’55” to 79’04”). In general, one finds more gravitas than playfulness – variation XXV is taken very slowly – which can have disadvantages in lighter passages; variation VII is rather flat-footed in both. Weissenberg’s fingerwork is always precise and transparent, and the piece as an entity is convincingly conceived, which is no mean feat. Both Goldbergs are ingenuous, well-balanced interpretations; the final climax is excellently managed. Anyone only wanting the Goldbergs will be pleased to know that the later, digital, recording is slightly superior and is available on EMI’s budget ’Encore’ label.
The Partitas (recorded in 1966) receive unified renditions, occasionally over-driven (the ’Allemande’ of No.1 or the ’Fantasia’ opening No.3) or too plain (No.2’s ’Sarabande’). In movements with dense textures, Weissenberg could help the listener more. Elsewhere his discriminating blend of virtuosity and reflection is laudable (the ’Overture’ and ’Allemande’ of Partita No.4 for example).
Of everything on these discs, I enjoyed the French Overture most. The simplicity and directness of the dance movements chime in exactly with Weissenberg’s virtues. The ’Courante’ and pair of ’Gavottes’ are proportioned perfectly; indeed how witty ’Gavotte II’ is, without the least sense of exaggeration. In the French Overture, Weissenberg seems able to relax more, to let the music breathe. The ’Passepieds’ are a particularly good example of this; the ’Bourrees’ following are brisk and sprightly with no sense of rush. The Italian Concerto, though it has fine moments of repose at the end of the slow movement, is either ponderous or rushed, notably in the last movement where all sense of detail is lost. Weissenberg’s virtuosic-sense works well in the free-flow of the Chromatic Fantasia; the ensuing Fugue is admirably clear, its parts defined, the sound-picture pleasing.
As for the recordings, the ’sixties set is surprisingly warm, and only occasionally betrays its age with hard-edged tone; the digital remastering is very successful. The 1981 Goldberg is extremely good for early digital.
Neither of Weissenberg’s Goldbergs could be a first choice – neither quite takes wing; there is not the architectural perfection of Perahia (Sony), the glacial purity of Hewitt (Hyperion) or the flights of fancy that Jill Crossland found in recital. However, any Goldberg with non-contentious virtues is an achievement; if your collection runs to more than one version, Weissenberg certainly bears repeated listening. All the CDs give generous measure; with the exception of the ’48’ they contain all Bach’s most famous keyboard works.
These releases remind that French and British taste in pianists, as in so much else, differs. There are many who have made reputations in France that are neglected here – Samson François and Inger Sodergren spring immediately to mind. The same, to some extent, is true of Weissenberg, though some of his recordings with Karajan (also EMI) have crossed the Channel auspiciously. Weissenberg is part of piano-performance heritage; EMI is to be commended for making his accomplishments available again.