CD Review: Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Blandine Rannou


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Right off the bat, when you start listening to this recording, you know that there’s something different; several things.

First, and most apparent, is the length of the recording. At nearly 90 minutes, it spans two CDs. Among the nearly thirty recordings of the Goldbergs in my collection, only Richard Egarr’s recording on Harmonia Mundi is that long – it’s actually 45 seconds longer. The vast majority of recordings fit between 60 and 80 minutes, or sit comfortably on a single disc. At the other extreme are exceptions such as Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording – 38 minutes – or Gustav Leonhardt’s 1965 recording, at 47 minutes. It’s fair to say that the LP format limited what one could do with a work like this. The length of the recording here is more about playing all the repeats, rather than very slow tempi. While the opening aria is indeed played very slowly, most of the variations are played at tempi that are more or less standard, with some being more rapid than what one is used to. Rannou tends, however, to play the slower variations more slowly than most.

Second, there is rubato. Lots of rubato. Rubato on top of rubato. This is no metronome-enslaved recording of Bach, no follow-the-beat-no-matter-what recording, but one where a performer improvises the tempo, plays with it, adapts it to her vision.

The third difference here is that there is, indeed, improvisation. Rannou is not wedded to the notes. She takes liberties – and very extreme ones. This is not only in her ornamentations, but in certain melodic lines, where she allows a jazz-like variation to intrude into the music. This is notable in the opening aria which Rannou caresses lovingly for nearly 7 minutes, as an overture to the work, showing what is to come. You can also hear it in the flowing Variation 13, Variation 21, and others. Rannou tends to improvise more in the slower variations, where there is more flexibility, though the sprightly Variation 23 gets a work-over as well.

No review of the Goldberg Variations would be complete without mentioning the 25th variation; the famous “black pearl”. Rannou uses what sounds like a lute stop on one keyboard, providing a nice contrast between the sounds of the two keyboards. She plays this slowly. At 9:38, it’s one of the longest in my collection; Barenboim plays it at 10:34, Dershavina 8:36, and Egarr only 8:05. Yet in the variation that seems to allow the most flexibility, Rannou is surprisingly restrained. There is some rubato, as in all the slow variations, but only a handful of improvised notes or ornaments, until the fourth part of the variation (the second part of the repeat) comes around. Even then, compared to the rest of the work, Rannou is sedate, and, with a few exceptions, generally follows the score, and tradition. This said, her performance of Variation 25 is scintillating in its beauty, and the sound she gets out of the harpsichord is beautiful.

And then we get to the Aria da Capo and which brings it full circle. Rannou plays this in a minimalist fashion. As she slows down at the end of the piece, a certain sadness overcame me, as if I wouldn’t be hearing this music the same way ever again.

Score fundamentalists may be up in arms reading the above. A performer who doesn’t follow Bach’s tempi, and who even injects their own notes into the work … Horrendous. But this may be exactly the way music was played in Bach’s time. It is known that he improvised on the organ; is it so hard to believe that he would be so inflexible with a work like the Goldberg Variations? I find it regrettable that the liner notes contain nothing by the performer discussing these choices.

In addition to the unique performance, the quality of the recording is exemplary. Rarely does one hear a harpsichord recorded this well. It is a beautiful copy of a Ruckers-Hemsch, by Anthony Sidey. The sound is neither too harsh nor too overwhelming, though at times, such as in Variations 6 and 14, it can be a bit heavy as so many notes and chords are played.

You will love this recording, or you will hate it. I think this is the type of interpretation that allows no middle ground. Blandine Rannou’s approach is unique and personal, and if you don’t buy into it – assuming you are familiar enough with the Goldberg Variations to realize what is so different – then it won’t be for you. By all means, sample this recording online before buying it. As far as I’m concerned, this is the freshest approach that I have heard to this work since Glenn Gould.

This review was originally published on MusicWeb International.