BACH: Goldberg Variations – Beatrice Rana – Warner Classics

J. S. BACH: Goldberg Variations – Beatrice Rana – Warner Classics 88018, 77:45 (2/24/17) *****:

One of the great Goldbergs of our time by a young Italian artist

An injunction I made some years ago has been largely ignored: No more recordings of the Goldberg Variations until all of the 555 sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti are recorded on the piano. Perhaps only Yevgeny Sudbin (BIS 2009 & 2016) heeded that call, recording two of the best recitals of the last couple of decades which included new transcriptions of the master’s keyboard works. Meanwhile, pianists and harpsichordists have been unable to resist the temptation of scaling that summit, serene and stormy, known originally as the Aria mit vershiedenen Veranderungen.

Here we have Beatrice Rana, a 23-year-old Italian pianist, undertaking this most severe test on her second outing as a recording artist. It seems ill-advised but we will have to trust Warner Classics, which is on quite a roll recently, especially in the piano department. (See the review on these pages of the remarkable David Fray Chopin release.)

There is to be no skipping around in the variations; one must start at the beginning and arrive a different person by the end. Each great recording feels like its own journey in a varying landscape of signposts, distractions and, if one is lucky, revelations. Number One begins and ends with the aria, perhaps the most exquisite melody ever penned by a human. To play it even badly (as I have) is a blessing beyond our deserving, but to play it (or hear it) well is to experience what it must be to be a divine creature, outside the reach of time or mischance.

In Ms. Rana’s treatment the aria unfolds at a provocatively slow tempo; this imposes an extra challenge to maintain the forward movement and keep the melody from becoming decorative or self-regarding. She succeeds, however, with the most delicate feeling for rubato and the well-placed counterpoint. It is also the most sotto voce playing that I have heard. You might be tempted to turn up the volume; I advise against this. Let the music pull your ear forward, prompting the alertness of a hunter. She takes the repeats (now the practice though it was not always) which brings her across the five-minute mark, surely one of the slowest takes ever. (She will exceed this on the reprise.)

Immediately, introspection is cast off and Variations I, II and III break off at an emphatic clip, exactingly articulated and joyous. The fifth variation, made famous by Glenn Gould, flies by in a minute, feet not touching the ground. The ensuing VII has the first admonitory bass-line which chastens the light mood, suggesting darker harmonies will appear down the trail. Ornamentation is tested in VII and the pianist demonstrates the lightest touch, but a distinctly pianistic technique that reminds us that we are not in the realm of the harpsichord.

There is so much beauty in the first half of the Goldbergs that we can scarcely believe our good fortune. There is in Variation XII a fugue as good as any Bach ever wrote. Nearly at the halfway point we have the theatrical XIV which starts with the bass trill in and an oddly inverted clownish subject. But immediately things sober up with the remarkable and harmonically challenging Canon at the fifth, XV, which is the beginning of the descent that will reach bottom with the ‘Black Pearl’.

It is in the depths of the Goldberg Variations that we are finally able to evaluate just how good a performance is. The marks of the best performances of this work are the ability to transcend mere technical challenges and to leave the instrument behind so as to comprehend the special universe of this creation in all its darkness and light. I am continually astonished that this young artist is able to do this and join the ranks of the greatest exponents of the GV, Andras Schiff, Murray Perahia, Angela Hewitt, Edward Aldwell, Jeremy Denk and Samuel Feinberg.

And then there is the Black Pearl, the ultima thule of Bach, shrouded in mist and visited by strange apparitions. You may take it together with the other variations—or perhaps you might try waking up in the middle of the night and listening by candlelight in the company of a black cat or raven. Beatrice Rana plays it on tiptoes, disturbing some but not all of its many sleeping shadows. Still, compare her version with the heartless Glenn Gould version and you may have to admit that Gould’s Bach is confined to pianistic display, albeit the greatest display ever.

When we emerge from the swamp of the Black Pearl there is nothing but sunlight. A rollicking  XXVI and a punchy Canon at the ninth. We reach the penultimate processional Quodlibet and start to form a final assessment. This is brilliant, assured playing. We can award an unqualified highest score to this remarkable recording and just sit back and enjoy the Aria returned to us as a final benediction. Amazingly, it is even softer and slower than in the beginning. Again I resist the temptation to fiddle with the knobs and let the beauty hover on the edge of audibility, a receding vision of splendor.

I can only imagine what it would be like to encounter the Goldberg Variations for the first time by way of this recording. Bach aficionados and collectors would be amiss to pass on this release, which will stand out from the reliable production of GV recordings for a long time to come.

—Fritz Balwit

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