Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Jill Crossland (piano)
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: 19 October, 2001
Venue: Purcell Room, London
Romantic, emotional, suspenseful, dramatic. These are not the words that first come to mind when thinking of Bach’s keyboard music. They are adjectives appropriate to this recital. This was unexpected; I came on the strength of hearing Crossland’s Bach as Viktoriya Grigoreva’s partner in their recent Wigmore Hall violin-and-piano recital, when classical virtues – lucidity of part-writing, rhythmical security and so forth – were apparent. Instead, this was something bold and impassioned.
It was a brave choice of programme, unintentionally made braver given it came less than a week after Angela Hewitt performed the ’Goldbergs’ in London; and, on this very night, Murray Perahia’s recent Sony recording won the ’Instrumental’ category at the Gramophone Awards. Even in this company, Jill Crossland’s performance was not out of place.
At the beginning, I asked myself whether a delivery of the ’Aria’ with such rubato, even waywardness, indicated a mannered, eccentric interpretation. Crossland immediately launched the first variation with commitment and confidence. She delighted in highlighting fragments of phrases, pedal notes or ornamental details as counter-melodies. There was continual use of agogic pause and accent. The part-writing was emphasised not only by articulation but extrovert means. Crossland emphasised dynamic contrasts, not only within a phrase but also between the hands; the delivery of melodies in the bass was often powerfully percussive. There are many examples – the rising scale flourishes in variation ’7’ or the descending bass arpeggios in ’8’ head a long list.
This approach proved utterly convincing for a live performance. By the end – and the closing statement of the ’Aria’ was slightly more measured – I wondered if only this degree of openly-articulated emotion could have so gripped my interest over a long, uninterrupted time-span. Who can say that their mind has not wandered while listening to music? Unless one is listening analytically, music is often, however fleetingly, a space for reflection, a welcome suspension of time. Not here. I was surely not alone in being constantly on the edge of my seat, unbearably curious as to how the next variation would be played, completely caught up in the rhetoric of the moment. Crossland’s alchemy turned the economy, detail and invention of Bach’s writing into the purest drama and emotion.
As the piece progressed, I did wonder at the unremitting intensity of each variation. Surely No.13, say, or the ’Adagio’ (’25’) needed to be slower, the long-drawn melodic lines or the walking quavers more still. I wondered about the absence of a single moment of repose, whether it might not be better if the simpler melodic lines were left to speak for themselves. I am still wondering.
This was not a flawless performance. Might Crossland’s near-extremes of accented distortion and rhythmic freedom be a technical prop to combat nerves; the percussive delivery of the counter-melodies indicate tightness as well as attack? It would be impossible to sustain this degree of commitment over seventy minutes and betray no effort. Blemishes and uncertainties did indeed appear in the first of the virtuosic variations (’5’), and, at times, the sustaining pedal seemed to be used not just for unashamed and justifiable legato effects, but also to steady the sound-picture. There were brief moments, in ’11’, when over-enthusiasm muddied timbres overly.
I had the impression that the very different sonorities of the ’Overture’ (’16’), and the need in its second half for rapid movement to be continuously pointed, relaxed Crossland; unless it was simply the psychological effect of reaching half-way. The succeeding patch of variations was especially fluent, and the piano sound became sweeter.The bell-like tone in ’22’ made me curious to hear Crossland’s Schumann, the combination of finger-clarity and Impressionism in ’27’ and ’28’ her Debussy and Ravel. The intensification of ’26-29’, followed by the resolution in the ’Quodlibet’, and the ’Aria’ reprise, were impeccably judged. Maybe I continue to have a more Olympian, aloof view of this work, but for a live performance, especially by a pianist seeking to establish herself, I could ask for nothing more or better than what I heard.
There is no appropriate encore after so complete a work, but the enthusiastic audience was placated by the second Prelude from the first book of the ’48’. Crossland showed the same virtues – foundation of detail, fluent and idiomatic playing transformed by an injection of adrenaline; again, it was the powerful melodic lines in the bass that caught the ear.
A distinct and lasting after-effect is an indication of quality or greatness in art or aesthetics. Complex works of literature or film often need to be pieced together in the mind at leisure. This performance has stayed in my mind; it transformed my mood, it immediately sent me to the score and a number of recordings – I find the piece newly accessible and better understand its greatness.
Crossland’s choice of this work, not only for her debut recording but her South Bank debut, and from the intensity and variety she brought to her interpretation, places the ’Goldbergs’ as very significant for her. If she can play like this across a range of repertoire, she surely deserves, in time, to become a household name.