BACH: Goldberg Variations – Zhu Xiao-Mei, p. (2014)

by | Apr 12, 2016 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

BACH: Goldberg Variations – Zhu Xiao-Mei, p. (2014)

Zhu Xiao-Mei life’s work culminates in her profoundly personal live performance at Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

BACH: Goldberg Variations complete perf. by Zhu Xiao-Mei, piano
Director: Paul Smaczny
Studio: Accentus Music 42 6023483 076 7 (10/14) [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: for 16:9 screens, color
Audio:  PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1
All Regions
Extras: Documentary: “The Return is the Movement of Tao”
Length: 85:54
Rating: *****

Pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei is unique among great pianists. Compared with most elite performers, she began her career late in life and performs infrequently. She spends long periods of time in retreat absorbed in a small selection of repertoire. Bach is at the heart of her immersion, the Goldberg Variations at the epicenter.

She has lived with this piece as “one might live with another person.” She knows the voices of the polyphony so well that they are her family. In her performance she reveals the dialogue of arguments and conversations. Her aria is deceptively straightforward, allowing ornaments to sparkle on top of the bass. Later, she’s not afraid to shock by highlighting a bombastic bass (captured brilliantly by the recording), as she does in the beginning of the 4th and 5th variations.

Her treating of the conversational polyphony and highlighting of the baseline are more reminiscent of Wanda Landowska’s 1933 harpsichord recording than of the great piano interpretations, from Gould to Tepfer. Zhu Xiao-Mei’s performance, captured by brilliant engineers in stunning acoustics, allows Landowska’s brand of clear vocal-like interplay to shine even more.

The most stunning element of the DVD (available in three sound formats) is its capacity to fill space with sound, whether a living room, mountain range, or St. Thomas Church. Watching the included documentary provides the opportunity to experience the performance as a musical memoir. Its technique, both minimalist and grand, uses periods of silence interspersed with music and speech to create a sense of space. This spatial awareness remains as we listen to the venue fill with sound and witness the personal connection between artist and music.

—Anne Suda

[One writer says this performance even surpasses those two of Glenn Gould…Ed.]

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