Goldberg Variations – Daniel Propper

Goldberg Variations, BWV988

Daniel Propper (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 8 January, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

“Viennese by origin, Swedish by birth and French by adoption” read the biography of the 36-year-old Daniel Propper who at one time worked with Tatyana Nikolayeva whose Bach regularly used to set the Wigmore Hall alight. A former Juilliard pupil, Propper first played Goldberg Variations in public at the age of 19 and has since recorded the work (Skarbo SK 1059).

Lasting a full 78 minutes, this was a reading that certainly made all the right noises: a full complement of repeats; clean, strong part-playing; and no obvious eccentricities. Yet it left one unmoved despite many good features.

Looking at my notes I keep seeing the words “sturdy”, “dogged” and “light and shade?” continually cropping up. Yes, it was all supremely confident, just as one would expect of a former Juilliard pupil, but frequently one felt as if one were back tackling the assault course at school.

After an agreeably straightforward and unmannered reading of the ‘Aria’ each Variation was approached with an unremitting forcefulness which, for all Propper’s strength and clarity, frequently bordered on the relentless. Normally, the series of nine Canons – which occur every third Variation – act as distinctive staging-posts, breaking the music’s flow and clearly marking progress through the 30 Variations; however, on this occasion with so little light or shade and with a general reluctance to relax and characterise (there was not much of the dance about Variation VII, the Gigue), Variations and Canons elided, making for a certain monotony. Even the extended Variation XXV (associated with Landowska as “Black Pearl”) seemed interminable, rather as though one had been trapped in an extended tape loop.

Perhaps the occasion, which was being recorded, led Propper to overplay his hand in a bid to make a strong impression. He is clearly a fine and technically complete pianist. One just wished he would lighten up and find some joy in his music-making.

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