“Bach’s vision in that fusion of ratio and eros, intellect and intuition…”
J.S. BACH: “Goldberg Variations,” BWV 988 – Burkard Schliessmann, piano – divine art SACD ddc 25754 (2 CDs: 38:06; 45:00) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
Divine Art reissues Burkard Schliessmann’s July 17-19, 2007 recording of Bach’s epic Goldberg Variations, remastered in 2022 at the Teldex Studios, Berlin in a process dubbed Dolby Atmos. The broad approach to Bach’s construct, an Aria and 30 Variations, including repeats, stretches the performance time to some 83 minutes, more competitive with the 1995 St. Petersburg traversal by Rosalyn Tureck than that of Schliessmann’s professed affinity for the strictures of Glenn Gould, whom Schliessmann quotes extensively in his florid, booklet commentary. Unlike Gould, Schliessmann does not attempt to compromise his Steinway Grand Piano D-274 with touches approximating harpsichord sonority. Rather, the close resonance of the keyboard recommends this high flown, intellectual performance, in modern sound, as a distinct musical entity in the Bach performance canon. Kudos to Recording Producer Friedemann Engelbrecht and Sound Engineer Julian Schwenkner for the vivid imagery their collaboration has fixed for this survey.
The sonic immediacy of the remastering follows Schliessmann in his essentially harmonic approach to this monumental conception, essentially an ouroboros whose beginning and end, the Aria, encloses itself. The bass line provides the impetus to the entire structure, the various melodies and dances a mere accompaniment and elaboration of the bass. At every third variant Bach introduces a contrapuntal gambit, inserting a series of canons that graduates in spatial intervals as the music proceeds, from the unison to the ninth degree. Bach then resorts to his Homeric sense of humor, applying his polyphonic mastery to what he calls a quodlibet, a combination of profane, popular tunes that, by Bach’s musical alchemy, achieves timeless nobility.
The cleanliness of articulation, perhaps tending to the dry and pungent, manages to add a decisive, rhythmic spice to such events as the Variation 7 in Gigue tempo. The overt virtuosity of Variations 14 and 15 rings with dexterous authority, while the tragic Variation 25 in its minor mode elevates us to another world whose veil has been lifted. The sense of an evolving structure appears foremost in Schliessmann’s concept, as we move through elaborations and ornaments, determined, geometric forms to a higher sensibility that Bach always regarded less as an aesthetic exercise, but as a moral imperative.
The intricacies of Bach’s stunning achievement here, in the “Keyboard Practice” of 1742, have been well documented by commentators and scholars. That the music transcends explanatory pedantry poses the challenge for any performer technically equipped and intellectually intrepid in the face of consummate, creative mastery. Schliessmann joins those blessed with the mission to deliver Bach’s vision in that fusion of ratio and eros, intellect and intuition, that endows the realization with poetic mystery. An hour-and-one-half spent on hallowed musical ground might suffice for a Sunday service.