Goldberg Variations, BWV988
Andrei Gavrilov (piano)
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: 13 May, 2006
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
When Bach wrote contrapuntal music, he made no compromise as to the accuracy of the individual parts – not only was the musical invention sublime, but the harmonies and the voicing were also perfect in detail. Bach’s Romantic admirers re-created the textures and emotional effects, and as for the precision of the content in each voice, they cheated. Charles Rosen has extensively documented his phenomenon of fugato – ‘fake’ fugue writing. When Andrei Gavrilov, justifiably famous for his extravagant virtuosity in the Romantic repertoire, performed the Goldberg Variations, he employed that very same sleight of hand.
The day before this recital, given as part of the “Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music”, I heard Gavrilov’s appearance on BBC Radio 3’s “In Tune”, playing a Chopin Nocturne, in strongly characterised, almost histrionic Russian fashion. Then came the final few Goldberg Variations, so alarmingly inaccurate that I took the precaution of bringing a score to the recital itself, so as not to be incorrectly harsh in my impressions.
Unfortunately, the lasting effect of Gavrilov’s performance was simply that he made every kind of technical error. It was not simply that there were many wrong-notes, some spectacularly so, such as ending the second part of Variation XXVIII, first time, in the dominant, not the tonic. Whenever the music was faster, the texture dense, Gavrilov kept the melodic line at all costs and either hid the rest, or simply missed out a significant number of notes; after all, if one does not know a contrapuntal piece well, as a listener, one will not miss the absence of detail. But no proper Bach interpreter plays like this today; indeed, one of the major pleasures should be to hear each voice given its distinct colour and identity, instead of Gavrilov’s consistent ‘line and part-accompaniment’. Nor could he plead unfamiliarity – he has a recording of this work, and he was playing from the score.
I am an indifferent amateur pianist – I would not have dared to bring to a teacher a rendition of the Goldbergs in the haphazard condition that Gavrilov gave it to this audience. Since Gavrilov showed us his firepower in a storming Prokofiev encore, and his capacity for a ravishing pianissimo in the Chopin Nocturne that preceded it, he does not seem to have lost his exhibitionist prowess.
Detailed comments on each variation would present a sorry catalogue of accidents. Often a promising start went off the rails a few bars in. In favour of this impressionist approach, I must say that Gavrilov never compromised on tempo, but as a result, some variations were undifferentiated whirlwinds of notes. There were simply too many flaws – which detracted from the continuity of almost every Variation. One waited for the canons, as islands of sanity between the outbursts of confusion.
At least Gavrilov had a philosophical basis for his approach. In an interesting programme note, he compared the Goldberg Variations to the well-known quote from Ecclesiastes, that “all is vanity”. For him, it is a secular work; the famous return of the theme demonstrates the emptiness of life – so long and arduous a journey. Thus, I assume his tone to have been deliberately harsh in, for example, the abrupt return to reality in Variation XXVI and the gaps between each quarter-variation (he played all repeats, and all the variations are in two halves) to have been a deliberate evocation of his view of the work as disjointed and disturbing.
Various past giants – Cortot, Fischer, Schnabel – had a reputation for playing wrong notes, but in each case there was a compensatory spirituality. This was not true of Gavrilov; in the ‘Aria’, and of course in Variation XXV, he did conjure a mood of sensitivity, an intense intimacy, and Variation XXI was interestingly playful. But, for the most part, there was simply no sign that he could break out of a curious mental fog that enveloped a depressingly disappointing recital.