Lifschitz Goldberg Variations

Goldberg Variations, BWV988

Konstantin Lifschitz (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 25 September, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

If there was an equation by which duration + devotion (to the score) = musical success this would have been a great performance. Taking place at 11.30 on a Sunday morning in an unlit Wigmore Hall, the capacity audience might have been attending a religious rite so devout was the atmosphere, so Stygian the all-encompassing gloom. This was a large-scale, 80-minute account with every repeat observed.

The Goldberg Variations has occupied a significant place in the Ukrainian-born Konstantin Lifschitz’s career. Now 29, he included the work in his graduation recital in 1994 and then recorded it for Denon, a disc which won a Grammy in 1996. However, as was clear from a previous Wigmore Hall recital when he gave an excellent Rachmaninov Second Sonata, Lifschitz is a virtuoso who excels in Romantic repertoire. Although a virtuoso technique is no impediment for playing Bach, Lifschitz nonetheless comes at this music from a highly personal perspective. Trying to describe this, the programme note put it thus: “Lifschitz’s interpretations are pervaded by the spirit of our age; you can sense the spirit of Glenn Gould in the freedom of expression and his own distinctive style for its dramatic flair and gracefulness” (which is more than can be said of the writer’s way with the English language).

In fact it was in the quicker Variations, which burst forth in a torrent of power, that one had the fewest misgivings. Elsewhere, despite occasional beautiful details – a singing, hypnotic left-hand in Variation 13 or the subtle way Lifschitz varied repeats – much of the playing had a laboured quality, an approach to this Everest of keyboard literature that was very, very serious. In fact, there is a joyous, life-affirming quality to the Goldbergs – most notably in the penultimate ‘Quodlibet’ (literally ‘as you please’) and also in the canons which act as markers along the way – a joyousness not much in evidence here.

The majority of Bach’s keyboard music works well enough on the piano; however, the Goldbergs were specifically written for a two-manual harpsichord, and many passages require the crossing of hands to achieve maximum contrapuntal clarity. In this reading, despite Lifschitz’s manifest virtuosity, that separation of contrapuntal lines could have been much clearer. Partly, one suspects, a lighter touch was needed.

Above all, profound though the Variations may be, the sequence wears its profundity lightly and was written to “divert” the resoundingly titled Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, who suffered from neuralgia and chronic insomnia, and who commissioned Bach to write something for his harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. On this occasion – in keeping with the quasi-religious atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall – one left feeling edified but hardly uplifted. For an encore Lifschitz gave a Mendelssohn Song without Words, an appropriate choice given his veneration of Bach.

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