BACH: Goldberg Variations; 14 Canons – Richard Egarr, harpsichord – Harmonia mundi (2)

by | Mar 16, 2006 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BACH: Goldberg Variations; 14 Canons – Richard Egarr, harpsichord – Harmonia mundi 907425.26 (2 CDs for price of one), 1 hr., 39:16 ****:

With roughly 100 recordings of the Goldberg Variations on the books, including versions for string trio, string orchestra, accordion and harmonica, a new version for the common harpsichord might not attract too much attention if it weren’t for the fact that nothing that either Richard Egarr or Harmonia mundi does is routine.

As you might imagine, Egarr, one of violinist Andrew Manze’s favorite musical playmates, has done some deep thinking before embarking on such a formidable challenge (he only began playing the Goldbergs in public four years ago). Nor is the instrument he’s playing on common—or at least commonly tuned. And therein lies the most obviously intriguing insight on which Egarr has based his new recording: what he calls in his enthusiastic liner notes (which constitute half detective story and half musical monologue), “Bach’s own tuning system,” a “sixth-comma meantone tuning” based on the work of musicologist Bradley Lehman (you’ll have to read the notes to find out what this means).

Not surprisingly for someone with such a loving embrace of history, Egarr has attempted to return to Bach’s musical rather than theoretical intentions—as indicated by the title of his notes, “Bach and Cantabile Heaven.” The result is a noticeably slower pace than many performances, simpler and far more self-referencing, with an accumulating lyrical freedom that increases as the variations proceed. It is as if Egarr has identified with the personal meditation Bach must have had in mind when he set out to attempt this extraordinarily ambitious work.

None of this would make the slightest bit of difference if it weren’t for the fact that the Harmonia Mundi team of Robina Young and Brad Michel have lavished one of their most exquisite recordings on the project, made at the Dutch venue of the Vereenigde Doopsgezinde Gemeente in Te Haarlem. Every nuance of Joel Katzman’s harpsichord, made in 1991 after a Ruckers instrument built in Antwerp in 1638, is captured to perfection. There’s nothing initially sensational about the sound, but as the music progresses you begin to realize how beautiful a sound universe you have entered.

In order to accommodate all the repeats, Harmonia mundi have sensibly priced the two CDs at the price of one, and thrown in the 14 brief but mysterious canons discovered in 1974 (and to show that he is not entirely averse to the 21st century, Egarr has recorded both parts of the canons himself). The CD package has a shortened version of Egarr’s liner notes, but Harmonia Mundi makes the complete notes available on their website.

– Laurence Vittes

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