Wolfgang Rübsam Bach: Goldberg Variations

review goldberg x1 cong

This not just a different version of Variations; it is, the sleeve notes imply, the one Bach wanted you to hear, played as it is on a lute harpsichord (one of only a few in existence, built by Keith Hill) at a sensible tempo.

The “so-called” (as the sleeve notes put it) Goldberg Variations were first published in 1741. One account suggested the work was written for harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg; the fact that Goldberg was 13 when the work was published suggests that this anecdote is not true. The work is the culmination of Baroque variation technique, say the sleeve notes.

The elephant in the room is Glenn Gould, whose version of the piece is seen by some to be definitive; it’s a marvellous recording, and we guess most people are going to compare this with that. The sleeve notes say the Gould performance influenced ideas about the speed at which the piece should be played, giving rise to occasionally “ludicrous hype around the tempo”.

The sleeve says that while Gould sometimes played prestissimo (very fast, 200 bpm) this is diametrically opposed to Bach’s cantabile playing, ie songlike with a measured tempo and mellow playing. “Extremely dense music requires a correspondingly generous amount of time,” say the notes, not performances “seemingly attempting to break the speed record”.

Rübsam is therefore attempting to make the complex music more transparent and easy to understand, using an instrument similar to one Bach himself possessed.

All well and good, but the Gould rendition is famed for a reason, whether or not he set out to break land speed records. This is in effect a different piece of music; it sounds different both in tempo and in the crisp lute harpsichord, whose name gives the sound away. While Gould pulls you into the ether, this keeps you grounded; while the sound of Gould is timeless, this is firmly of its time. We doubt anyone would give you this as an introduction to the Variations but it’s clearly an interesting and enjoyable piece of music in its own right. Out now on Naxos, 8573921.

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