This article is the third article of a four part series on the Goldberg Variations in which house writer Phoebus Kyriakoudis discusses different interpretations of the work
Picking up from last week’s discussion on Glenn Gould’s recording, I wanted to somehow jump several decades of recordings to arrive at the present day, looking at Lang Lang’s recording of the Goldberg variations that came out this year. It was actually this recording that made me realize how little I knew about the piece’s recording legacy, and therefore I wanted to delve more into its history. Before that, however, there’s a gap to be bridged with Gould’s temperamental and highly original recording; we need knowledge of what went on in the rest of the piano world, what the widespread trends about Bach’s music were then and now. The recording that sums it all up for me perfectly is Murray Perahia’s 2000 recording, bringing an almost unreal sense of balance between different musical impulses and showing a remarkable sense of unity. Let this recording, then, be our foil in discussing Lang Lang’s extravagant and lavish version, focusing on what that might tell us about the values we come to associate with interpreting Bach’s music.
Born in 1947, Murray Perahia is widely considered as a leading interpreter of, among other composers, Bach’s music. His recording of Bach English suites won the 1999 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance, while his recording of the Goldbergs won the 2001 Gramophone Award for best instrumental recording, just to name a few. Indeed, he manages to bring out a human side of Bach in every performance, one that is emotionally complex and multi-faceted, and one that is always backed up by his superb technical control of the instrument and his technical understanding of the work. This recording is, of course, no exception.
What strikes me in particular about this version is how much it sounds as if it was originally conceived for the piano; such is the balance Perahia has managed to find between lyrical, cantabile sound and one appropriately lean and transparent to let Bach’s counterpoint breathe. His playing brings to mind, at times, the detached sound that Gould pioneered with his recording (Listen, for example, to no. 17). Indeed, this detached and controlled playing style was embraced by many Bach interpreters, perhaps the best-known example being Andras Schiff’s unique articulation style for Bach’s music. At other times, Perahia’s peculiar articulation choices bring out a certain character that, although not obvious at a first glance, ultimately blend in with the overall mood of the piece. What I am referring to can be heard in his articulation of the fughetta subject in variation no. 10, which is dripping with vitality and with vivacious effulgence. The recording, too, makes sure to provide just the right level of dryness for the sound to maintain an expressive quality without detracting from the overall effect.
Another thing that is remarkable about this recording is Perahia’s knack for long-term structural thinking in his interpretation. Perhaps it has to do with the tempo choices, which not only work perfectly for each variation, but also somehow bind them together seamlessly to form a continuous line of musical thought from beginning to end. Others might point to his carefully carved-out dynamic scheme for each variation, taking into account the effect repeats might have on the dynamic curve of the piece and sounding as if meticulously optimized to bring out the most important point of each variation. There is obviously a lot of planning that has gone into this recording, and yet it doesn’t feel overly learned or cerebral on the whole; the proper expression of each variation’s character seems to be a given for Perahia for every moment of the piece. Take, for instance, Variations 15 and 16; an introspective, almost mournful canon on the minor mode, and a grandiose French overture. The two could not be less alike in character, serving to highlight the middle point of the work, and yet Perahia’s playing does not hammer out that caesura; we get a sense that he is always looking forward to variation after variation, always eager to continue and yet not detracting from the music’s expressiveness.
Lang Lang, born in 1982, belongs to a different music scene; having collaborated with everyone from Herbie Hancock to Metallica, and having performed in multiple different venues around the world, Lang Lang enjoys something of a celebrity’s lifestyle. That, of course, doesn’t mean that behind the flashiness and the glamour there isn’t a serious and determined musician. Still, his choice of repertoire always leans towards a combination of extremely popular and extremely flashy pieces that allow him to showcase his phantasmagorical playing skills. His choice to record Bach’s Goldberg variations, therefore, was certainly one that took people by surprise. Many struggled to imagine him performing this kaleidoscopic work, full of intimate and vulnerable moments as well as ebullient and vivacious ones.
Indeed, many opportunities are missed in this recording for finer shadings of emotion, often resulting in predictable phrasings and overly sentimental interpretations. Listen, for example, to any of the minor-key variations, the opening and ending Arias or even some of the canons; such a style of playing is indeed more suited to late romantic pieces, perhaps Rachmaninoff or Liszt, rather than Bach. The sound becomes overly sentimental, focusing on really bringing out individual melodic motions of various voices but serving no purpose on a macroscopic level quite like how Perahia structured his thinking. What is more, the tempi are at times so slow you can actually feel the music drag along, particularly some of the drawn out ritenuti at the end of variations like no. 15. The sound, finally, doesn’t seem to change or progress as much as you’d like it to; Reaching variation no. 25, you know almost exactly how Lang Lang is going to perform it; that is, of course, not a very good thing for the variation famously named the “black pearl” of the entire piece.
Another thing that is clearly a result of Lang Lang’s affinity for virtuosic, flashy pieces is his lavish ornamentation of the variations and his at times over-the-top articulations. Even from the first variation, Lang Lang adds all sorts of twists, turns and ornaments to his playing when repeating each section. Listening again at Perahia’s recording, he too ornaments his repetition of each section, particularly in the fast and lively ones; however, he shows a level of restraint and balance in his playing which Lang Lang seems to lack, therefore making the latter’s ornaments sound like a Liszt improvisation. What is more, Lang Lang’s playing often leans on a rather harsh sound caused by exaggerated articulations in fast or loud variations; the opening of variation no. 16 may serve as an example. Of course, we need to remember Landowska’s efforts to produce as big a sound on her instrument as possible for that overture, echoed in most later recordings of the piece. In any case, there is a level of detail that Lang Lang’s playing seems to sacrifice at that point for the sake of creating a bigger volume, a louder, brasher sound, or a bolder articulation style, all of which detract somewhat from the delicacy of this intricate work. One cannot play Bach the same way they would play Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, after all.
To conclude, we need to reflect on what can Lang Lang’s recording tell us about how we view Bach’s music. It goes without saying that Bach has formed the cornerstone of the classical music canon, often termed as one of the greatest masters of classical music in general. This attitude towards him oftentimes will bleed into how we view the musician’s role in the process of interpreting Bach’s works. Certainly, the overly emotional neo-romantic style of playing that Lang Lang is exhibiting in this recording has many a time been frowned upon when applied to Bach; Gould himself denounced his first recording of the Goldberg variations, saying it sounded too much like Chopin. However, it is very easy for amateur and professional Bach performers to fall into the trap of playing everything cerebrally, every note devoid of emotion, either for fear of insulting some celestial force upholding values of Bach’s music or because Bach’s contrapuntal style dazzles them so much they forget it’s music they’re supposed to be performing. Therefore, Lang Lang’s recording can serve as an opportunity for reflection on what the middle ground could be for a modern performance equally embracing the emotional and technical side of Bach’s music. I personally found that middle ground with Perahia; we’re all free to think and dream for ourselves, however, and I invite you all to do so.
Phoebus Kyriakoudis, January 2021
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