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Of Grammys & Goldbergs

The good news for Bach fans: Murray Perahia’s new recording of the Goldberg Variations was nominated for a classical Grammy award, in the Best Instrumental Soloist Without Orchestra. The bad news: Murray Perahia plays on a piano!

Grammy nominators in search of the year’s best instrumental Bach could have chosen Robert Levin’s thrilling Well-Tempered Clavier (Hänssler), John Butt’s miraculous Trinity College organ recital (Harmonia Mundi France), David Cates’ recital on an Owen Daley copy of a wonderful 17th century French harpsichord (Wildboar), or Peter Watchorn’s silvery English Suites (Titanic). Nominators in search of fretted Bach could have chosen from either Stephen Schmidt (on a 10-string quitar, Naïve Audivis) or Alex Masi (on a steel-string guitar, Americus),

Of course, pianist Perahia plays like an angel, finds a persuasive synthesis between patrician elegance and quasi-authentic style, and is sumptuously recorded. In fact, he wipes out the competition in the Best Album of the Year category, in which he was also nominated. It’s just that when he crosses the line from the compositional purity of Bach to the sumptuous pianism of Perahia, the spirit of the music is fatally (even if gently) interrupted. If the nominators were determined to have their Bach on the piano, they could have selected Zhu Xiao-Mei’s set of the 6 Partitas (Mandala), played simply and with little exaggeration of rhythm or phrase, but with a marvelous ear for inner detail and the structural, sustaining luminosity of Bach’s miraculous polyphony

But Bach is best on the harpsichord. For comparison, I returned to John Metz’s recording on an Allan Winkler harpsichord (Soundset), a performance that provides a musical experience that is both richly entertaining and deeply spiritual by revealing rather than synthesizing the music’s compositional integrity. Thanks to the harpsichord, of course, Metz’s performance also enjoys qualities of color and nuance that not even the most sensitive pianist can achieve.

If you can, listen to the Goldbergs while reading either the score or Donald Francis Tovey’s penetrating essay that concludes, “As the Aria gathers up its rhythms into the broad passage of steady semiquavers with which it ends, we realize that beneath its slight exterior the great qualities of the variations lie concealed, but living and awake; and in the moment that we realize this, the work is over.”

Incidentally, there was plenty of Bach nominated in other categories including Bach’s Easter Cantatas from John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv); Bach’s Cantatas 56, 81 & 158 with Matthias Goerne and Roger Norrington (Decca); Bach’s B Minor Mass from Martin Pearlman and the Boston Baroque (Telarc); Helmuth Rilling’s outgoing Christmas Oratorio (Hänssler); and Philippe Herreweghe’s superlative St. Matthew Passion (Harmonia Mundi France).

Laurence Vittes



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