Bach: Goldberg Variations

Bach: Goldberg Variations

by Murray PerahiaMurray Perahia


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The year 2000 has been an annus mirabilis for Bach's Goldberg Variations. We have been blessed with pianist Angela Hewitt's unfailingly graceful performance; an elegant transcription for baroque strings and harpsichord by Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy; and a gleaming yet unexpectedly quaint realization by the Canadian Brass. Now Murray Perahia adds his inimitable voice to the distinguished chorus with this mercurial and often witty interpretation. Like most pianists who play this work, Perahia owes a considerable debt to the trailblazing Glenn Gould. But where Gould focuses on clarifying the score's contrapuntal complexity, Perahia seems more concerned with savoring its melodic munificence. Bach's tunes are long and winding roads, and with Perahia as our guide, we get a full sense of their range and reach. It's an exceptionally smooth ride, too. At first hearing, one might even find it emotionally detached, but further listening reveals that Perahia knows the music's depths as well as its surface. Even more than Gould, Perahia elucidates the work's architecture, revealing the theme and 30 variations to be a single, indissoluble unit. Note how he slowly screws up the tension until the anguished climax of Variation 25, then quickly unwinds in the exuberance of the five final variations. (The pianist provides an illuminating explanation of his approach in the CD booklet, although it presupposes fairly sophisticated knowledge of music theory.) Like Hewitt, Perahia plays all the repeats, adorning the iterations with a fanciful array of ornaments. Although Hewitt still impresses greatly with her ideal balance of caprice and sobriety, Perahia's performance is equally delightful and considerably more thought-provoking. He lets us hear this much-recorded music with fresh ears, and that's no small feat.

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