BACH: Aria with 30 Variations “Goldberg,” BWV 988 – Avner Arad, piano – MSR MS 1167, 75:31 [Distr. By Albany] ****:
Israeli pianist Avner Arad–a pupil of Seymour Lipkin, Rudolf Firkusny and Emanuel Ax – recorded this version of the Bach Goldbergs in May 2010 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, on a Hamburg Steinway D Model 0710. Digital strength and tonal clarity definitely claim Arad’s calling card, his articulation of those variations that might be labeled “inventions” crystalline, the sonority quite hard but nonetheless lyrical with a rapid application of grace notes. Those variations with metric shifts, like No. 11, Arad makes flow in steady pulsation that anticipates demands made by Chopin. The toccatas–one might consider the Canone alla Seconda the first of the series–become quite breathtaking and dynamically fertile, the competing voices resonant in a manner reminiscent of Glenn Gould. Arad can shape phrases with color, as in the Variation 7, “Al tempo di Giga,” a loure in the French style. The pulse in spite of broad approach remains brisk, and we can relish the dance effects that insert themselves in otherwise “learned” figures, a good example’s being the Canone alla Terza with its upward progressions then followed by a staccato-laden Fughetta in Scarlatti style.
With Variation 12 Canone alla Quarta we sense a decided semblance of the harpsichord texture even in the percussive sonority of the Hamburg Steinway D. The longest Variation, No. 13, returns to the aria style of accompanied melody but its scope and harmonic modulations already suggest affects Romanticism will claim. Arad keeps its intricacies in high relief without sacrificing a decisive tension that moves the interior drama of the piece in subdued passions. The Variation 15 Canon at the Fifth and its “fearful symmetry” has inspired much critical ink: in G Minor, it broods in its own (inverse) virtuosity, digital and mental. Arad negotiates its tricky metrics with measured assurance, its searching ornaments and anguished drive assimilated into a sarabande or dirge of singular girth. In quick contrast comes the French Overture in alternately-stately dotted rhythm and then breezily smooth imitation in strict time. No. 17 asks Chopin to look hard at how a rapid dance in strict meter might find agogic loopholes. Arad plays the Canone alla Sesta as a noble invention in staccati whose cadences assume a “point” and then cede to Variation 19 in which Arad projects a legato affect. The triptych concludes with the devilish No. 20 and its competing affects and runs in contrary motion.
With the G Minor Variation 21, the Canon at the Seventh, we seem to enter the contrapuntal world of Bach chorale-preludes, a chromatic sound that Liszt savors, especially in the clarity of Arad’s bass line. A nice tonal shift back into G Major, Alla breve, for the bright color of four-voiced Variation 22. Touches of a watery toccata style mark Variation 23. Songlike, the Canon at the Octave becomes a sweet dance whose modal harmonies bring Renaissance hues. The aria style returns for the spacious Variation 25, another poignant Adagio and again in G Minor. This angularly beautiful piece takes us past Liszt, perhaps to Bartok, Kurtag, and Ligeti. With the Variation 26 and the Canone alla Nona–rife with numerical associations traceable to Dante and the Medievalists–we sense a new momentum gathering to a dazzling peroration we know as the Quodlibet. The chaconne style has hastened in a manner Handel enjoys. Arad’s passing grace notes are no less remarkable than his fixed pulsation. A bit of alla musette follows in the attacca to perky Variation 28, a clear model for the Brahms notion of layered textures. An elegantly syncopated line in Variation 29 takes us to the Quodlibet, four voices that combine the timely and the timeless in Bach’s poetics of music. Arad’s “plastic rigidity,” to invoke the contraries of his incisive performance impart an aristocracy of spirit into the carnally-exalted polyphony that resolves into the da capo of the original and pristine Aria, untouched by its generative influence, secure in its enigmatic smile as the Mona Lisa.
— Gary Lemco