BACH: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988; Sarabanda con Partite, BWV 990; Aria Variata, BWV 989 – Matthew Halls, harpsichord – Linn 356 (2 CDs), 130:30 ****:
Preferring the Goldbergs normally played on a piano, it has been a while since I listened to a harpsichord in this music. Most of the recent recordings have been by pianists, but there are those of course who insist that the only way to hear this is on the older instrument. I disagree, but I am no enemy of the harpsichord or of recordings of this music played on one. Matthew Halls is a young British man who has a fine pedigree in performance and conducting, and he certainly knows his way around Bach.
Let me start off by saying that this might be the best-sounding plucked-string version of this piece I have ever heard. Linn has certainly captured the instrument in its most gracious mode, not always easy with a harpsichord. The low notes are rich and vibrant while the highs have a delicious ringing sound to them that for once doesn’t fell pinched or astringent.
This is a 2-CD set and I am not happy with the split in the Goldbergs—part one on disc one and part two on disc two. With my multi-disc changer it is not an issue but I am sure there are a lot of people that have single-disc players, and changing the disc in this work could prove an irritant. I am happy with the couplings—though Bach probably did not write the BWV 990 Sarabande con Partite—it certainly doesn’t sound like anything he penned—it is a delightful piece that deserves its place here. The Aria Variata is by Bach indisputably, and makes a fine, if darker ending to this disc.
But the Goldbergs are the main billing, and for the most part Halls gives us a very illuminating reading. Where he does wrong is at variation 26, a place that needs more contrast than with the preceding introspection in No. 25, and doesn’t get enough here. In fact, I feel that Halls’s move towards the finish line stalls a bit in this piece, certainly interesting from the standpoint of a valid interpretation of the sarabande itself, but too halting in the context of the overall variation structure. To me he is unable to pick things up enough to execute a really satisfying ending. One listen to Ralph Kirkpatrick’s abbreviated DGG version (Halls gives us the repeats) from this point on shows what I mean.
Nevertheless, this is a fine reading of some standing, and with the great sound to boot. I am sure it will be getting a lot of play time at my place.
— Steven Ritter