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There-and-back-again journeys

Statue of J.S. Bach in Eisenach, Germany (Heinz Hirndorf/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

There-and-back-again journeys

Three albums offer harpsichord and organ renditions of the Goldberg Variations

“It does seem,” wrote the late musicologist Peter Williams of J.S. Bach’s compositional strategies, “to be the nature of the Goldberg [Variations] to inspire a range of hypotheses.”

It also seems to be the nature of the Goldberg Variations to inspire a range of interpretations. Last year, the Italian pianist Beatrice Rana won acclaim for her piano rendition, and, indeed, despite (or maybe because of) Glenn Gould’s landmark recordings of 1955 and 1981, the piano remains the instrument on which the composition is most frequently performed.

This year, though, the Goldbergs belong mostly to other kinds of virtuosi—so many, in fact, that they won’t all fit onto one page. So consider this article the first part of two.

Among the reasons for the Variations’ perennial popularity: its considerable technical demands (those who execute them can silence anyone who doubts their dexterity), its meticulously symmetrical structure, its expansive emotional range, and its cyclical nature. Ending where it began, it takes on the there-and-back-again characteristics of a journey, perhaps even a lifetime. Bach composed the variations for harpsichord with two manuals. One might therefore consider the two-disc offerings by the Spanish harpsichordist Diego Ares (Goldberg Variationen [Harmonia Mundi]) and the Japanese harpsichordist Yoshiko Ieki (Goldberg Variations [Regulus]) the best places to begin surveying the Goldberg Class of 2018.

Ieki’s is the slower and the crisper of the two, suggesting both that she miked her keyboard more closely and that she values the trees a shade more than she values the forest. There’s certainly nothing overgrown, however, about Ares’ playing. And although Ares plays faster, one wouldn’t call him fast.

True, he occasionally demonstrates a lighter touch and a greater sensitivity to dynamics (he achieves an airiness in the second repeat of Variation 9, for example, that Ieki doesn’t even attempt). But these differences don’t occur often or obviously enough to guarantee one a passing score on a blindfold test. So, ultimately, it’s hard to argue persuasively for preferring Ares over Ieki or vice versa. But Ares’ liner-note explanation for why he has prefaced his Goldberg with a harpsichord transcription of Bach’s Adagio in G Major does lend his program a unique emotional disposition. “To approach the [Goldberg] Aria inspires so much respect in me,” he writes, “that over the years it has become imperative for me to do so by way of a prelude.”

In beginning with Bach’s Fantasia in G Major and Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, the Swiss organist Martin Heini adds two “preludes” to his two-disc Goldberg Variations (Guild), postponing his arrival at the initial Aria (the “tender sarabande”) by 15 minutes. (He also follows the concluding Aria with Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor.)

But when Heini finally reaches the Variations, he imbues them with a fullness and a grandeur that can’t simply be explained by the fact that the Goll organ (of the Parish Church of St. Katharina, Horw, Switzerland) on which he performs produces a vaster array of sounds than harpsichords and pianos do.

Most impressively, Heini retains the composition’s graceful fluidity, subtly shaping his playing so that it never suggests a ballet-dancing elephant. The ethereality of his Variation 11 and Variation 26 could give the expression “angels dancing on the head of a pin” a new and positive connotation.

Next issue: The multinational female string quartet Quatuor Ardeo performs an arrangement by François Meïmoun, the Swedish duo Kondens and the Lithuanian-British duo David Geringas and Ian Fountain unveil “new” Goldberg Variations, and the Japanese pianist Reiko Fujisawa takes on Beatrice Rana.