BACH: Goldberg Variations – Alexandre Tharaud, p. – Erato/Warner Classics + video DVD

BACH: Goldberg Variations – Alexandre Tharaud, piano – Erato/Warner Classics 0825646051779, 75:13 + video DVD (16:9), PCM stereo (12/4/15) *****:

After a slow, elegant, spaced-out Aria theme, relentlessly hip Alexandre Tharaud proceeds to give a freewheeling 21st century piano virtuoso’s bird’s eye view of the Goldberg Variations. Whatever the attitudes he adopts as he proceeds with the 31 variations – energetic, jaunty, bold, bright and always, forthright – the brilliant recorded sound is like the playing, almost in your face at times; the sound is so integral to the performance that you can buy it  on a vinyl and, most important, at whatever volume you play it is uniquely satisfying – although medium-loud enables you to hear more clearly just how much poetry Tharaud lavishes on what at first blush can be misconstrued as frontal attack.

It is an eventful journey. Tharaud may soften with a hint of impressionists’ haze on track seven but soon returns to his semi-clattering, wandering, always fascinating ways. He also uses ornaments like earrings, to adorn the music at deliciously vulnerable places; in track 14, he goes to extraordinary lengths in the repeats with his ornaments and embellishments, as if Bach were a dandy at the French court – it’s quite spectacular, unexpected, and it works.

By the time the great 25th Variation (Adagio) comes around, it seems at least initially to be only a sad diversion rather than a hugely powerful culmination; it soon extends into a deeply reflective, contemplative mood, recalling the 31st (Largo, molto espressivo) of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The whole Variations wind up in an increasingly constructionist, digital manner, emphasizing the simple counters of the melody as it happens to appear. Tharaud’s 29th Variation is worth the price of admission itself: a powerful, rumbling, rambling, spectacularly virtuosic and occasionally rather cruel handling of the giant chords that outline the theme for the running, scrambling arpeggios.

After an elegant reading of the two simultaneous multiple folksongs, as if he were the host who had invited you into another world, but now the time was coming to an end and it was time to hear the Aria once again, Tharaud finishes in the same elegant mood and style as the music had begun, as if saying farewell.

The physical package also includes a “bonus” DVD of a video taken from the recording sessions at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory in Aix-en-Provence, absolutely in love with Tharaud’s hands and fingers, and above all, his Bach. (62 mins., 1 DVD 5, stereo PCM).

If you make the entirely reasonable decision to forego the DVD and opt for the even more liquid sounds on the vinyl, you will be eligible for a free digital download as well.

—Laurence Vittes

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