Bach’s Goldberg Variations and The Brilliant Pierre Hantaï

The Goldberg Variations

I’ve already mentioned the written about the Diabelli-Variations, this K2 of the piano variation catalogue. Now I’m attacking the Everest, and all this without Sherpa.

Well to be fair, all I need to do is write about it, I wouldn’t be able to play any of them beyond the Aria in any case. So probably no Sherpa needed.

What makes the Goldberg-Variations so special? I still have a hard time putting my finger on it. Obviously, you’ll have heard it in a gazillion of movies, whenever the director want to portrait a hero as particularly intellectual, the Goldberg’s come up sooner or later. Hannibal Lecter may only be the most prominent of them. In any case, there is something just extremely fascinating how Bach takes this extremely simple melody and deconstructs it 32 times, in an almost analytical cubist way.

Glenn Gould – yes, there’s him, too

You can’t write about the Goldbergs without mentioning Glenn Gould, one of the first pop stars of the classical world (2M copies sold may not impress Madonna, but still). He recorded the variations twice, once in 1955, really helping this work to become world-famous, and once again in 1981. Fans have been arguing forever which version is better. Personally, I prefer the 1981 version, that said, the Goldbergs are somehow really something I appreciate much more on harpsichord. Plus, his humming with the music, I kind of tolerate this with Keith Jarrett, but for classical music it is really annoying.

Anyway, enough ink has been spilled on these, let me go to my personal preferred artist for these, Pierre Hantaï. (If you prefer the Goldbergs on a modern piano, check out Angela Hewitt, Andras Schiff, or Murray Perahia).

Pierre Hantaï

Hantaï is a French harpsichord player and conductor who has worked with all the great masters of baroque, from Gustav Leonhardt to Sigiswald Kuijken to Jordi Savall. Unfortunately, he records way to rarely, so you will find only a handful of albums from him. This probably hasn’t helped his international reputation, he seems to be still relatively unknown in the non-French speaking world. This is a real pity.

PIerre Hantai Goldberg 1992 recording, Naive reissue

Given how few solo recordings he’s made, you’ll be surprised to see that he has recorded the Goldberg variations twice, in 1992 (recently re-released on the Naïve label) and in 2003 on the Mirare label.

Pierre Hantai Goldberg variations Mirare 2003

Which one to get? Honestly, I don’t know, and I’m going to bail out and say, if you can afford it, both. Both are performances that trump pretty much all of what I’ve heard elsewhere. 1992 is occasionally more energetic, 2003 more reflective, but both are just superb.

In the booklet to the 2003 edition it is mentioned that the Goldberg’s are a work that “he’s played more often than any other since childhood”. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers has written about the 10,000 hours it takes to truly master something. While this claim has recently been challenged, I suppose this is still one of those examples of this rule.

My rating: 5 stars for both

You can find the recordings here and here as downloads and here in physical form (1992 recording only, the 2003 seems to be harder to find on CD).

Can Heaven Be Captured On Disc? Bach’s B-minor Mass BWV 232

Another entry on Bach. Maybe I should add him to my Blog title.

In any case, I just had to write about the b-minor mass, as it is such a fantastic work of art, one of the absolute highlights of the entire classical repertoire in my view.

Again, if you want to know more about the history, I don’t feel like I need to copy Wikipedia here, the only thing that is a bit particular about the story of this mass is actually that it is a full traditional catholic mass, given that Bach was a protestant composer. Actually, Bach apparently never performed the full thing in one go during his lifetime.

Well we don’t need to care about these historic details, we can just sit back and enjoy this amazing beauty. It is pretty long, around 2h, but there is so much to discover that it is worth putting down our tendency of ADHD (and I’m the first to admit to that disease) and listen to it from back to back. If your ADHD is too much of an issue, just pick out parts, as JSB would have done during his time.

The Great Catholic Mass

What is so special about this work (to give it its formal title “Messe in h-moll BWV232“, or as Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach called it the “Great Catholic Mass”? To me, it is most of all the overwhelming power. I’ve said before that I’m not religious, but  when I hear the choir sing the “Kyrie eleyson” (Lord, have mercy) with full organ backup,  I’m sometimes getting second thoughts. Or take the “Qui tollis”, how the choir interacts with the solo flute, or to give a final example, the beautiful glory of the “Sanctus”. Just amazing.

Karl Richter

The first version I ever had of this was, as many other probably, Karl Richter’s legendary 1961 version.

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There is still a lot of positives about this recording today, including the outstanding soloists (Fischer-Dieskau, anybody?). That said, a lot of time has passed since this version and the last 50 years have completely changed our reception of Bach and other Baroque works, thanks to the movement of “historically informed performance” by Harnoncourt et al. in the 1970s/80s.

Therefore, as much as I appreciate the sheer power of this version, I’m not going back to it that often.

Philippe Herreweghe – omne trium perfectum – All Good Things Come By in Threes

Philippe Herreweghe (yes I know, again as well) has recorded the b-minor mass three times (to quote Herreweghe himself: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”). All three recordings are very good, my preferred one by small margin is the last one from 2011 on his own label Phi. It was recorded in Berlin.

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It just gives you the perfect balance, it is not over the top, but extremely intense.

Another excellent alternative, and my other favorite, is Frans Brüggen’s older recording from 1990 on Philips.

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Obviously, there are many others that have done an excellent job, from Gardiner (see also here) to Hengelbrock, to Suzuki. But these two recordings are just one tiny notch above the very busy crowd.

5 stars for both recordings.

UPDATE Nov 20, 2015: You’ll find a review of Gardiner’s 2015 recording of the b-minor mass here.

 

You can find the Herreweghe here (Qobuz)

Bach Cello Suites – Purity at the highest level

While Brahms made it into the title of my blog, as he’s been historically my favorite composer, I may as well have mentioned Bach. I know I’m not very creative in my choice of composers as good old Johann Sebastian figures in so many best of composers lists, but to be fair, he’s there for a reason.

Bach in a way is the founding father of modern music. Anything before him sounds if you listen to it today very “old” (take early Baroque like Monteverdi or Renaissance artists), but most stuff from Bach, if you hear it today, sounds relatively contemporary in the chord changes and harmonies. Is it because the well-tempered scale was invented around that time? Well, more scholarly minds than me have certainly spent a lot of time thinking about it.

You can never have enough Bach. There is barely a month where I don’t add a new Bach album to my collection (latest additions were Claire-Marie LeGuay’s album and Pierre Hantaï’s English Suites). His St. Matthew’s and St John’s passions are a must hear every year doing the Easter period (and again, I’m not religious at all), there is no Christmas without his Oratorio, his Orchestral Suites and Brandenburg Concertos, while being the “pop” music of his time, still please after 100s of times being heard. His b-minor mass is probably the most beautiful liturgical work ever written (ok, it has serious competition, but anyhow). His sonatas for solo violin are about the only way a single violin on its own is enjoyable to listen to.

And now writing about another of his solo masterpieces: the Cello Suites (BWV 1007-1012). Pablo Casals did a great job promoting them, and his recording still is a must have. Unfortunately, from a recording point of view it is really not pleasure.

Steven Isserlis

Now which one to choose if you want a contemporary one? A tough decision, given that pretty much every Cello player on earth has played (and often recorded) them. My personal favorite at this stage is Steven Isserlis 2007 recording on Hyperion.

Bach_ Cello-Suiten - Isserlis

Why this out of this extensive catalogue? Well in any case there are many other beautiful versions I appreciate (Starker, Queyras, Wispelwey to name just a few), what makes Isserlis so special to me is the purity of his tone. As both the bible and the Tropicana commercial say, “nothing added, nothing taken away”. He is not excessive in his tempi or phrasing, there is very little vibrato, the sound of the cello is beautiful, clear, but not overly heavy or dark.

In a way, this recording reminds me of one of those famous Japanese Zen gardens, just freshly raked. You don’t even want to touch the little pebbles, fearing to destroy the balance. This is where Isserlis takes me.

EDIT: August 27, 2015: Thanks to the Gramophone Awards 2015, I finally stumbled across the recent version by David Watkin. See my entry here. Watkins recording is a just outstanding, near-perfect version on a historic cello. I still love Isserlis, but this is even better.