Here is a package that satisfies intellectual curiosity and is musically delightful. This two-disc set begins with a precise, but still musical, harpsichord performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations by Céline Frisch. Her Aria is clean, with both the melody and the bass line countermelody clear and phrased so that everything comes together well. Her ornaments fit naturally into the melodies throughout the variations, without drawing attention away from the tune, and she always has a sense of direction and forward momentum. The second disc contains the 14 canons on the first eight notes of the bass of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations and the two songs that are contained in the quodlibet near the end of the Variations. The canons are rich and warm performed by Café Zimmermann, a string sextet that includes a double bass, with excellent contrasts in the feel of each canon. The song Cabbages and Turnips Have Driven Me Away is the highlight of the two discs. Period instruments accompany Dominique Visse as he sings about a hunter bringing a girl home to meet his mother. Visse switches from a jolly, idiomatic tenor voice for the hunter to a smooth alto for the girl, and a slightly grating alto for the mother, often in mid-verse.
For those who already appreciate Rachel Podger's unique brand of magic I'll just say that this return to recorded Bach is lovely and all that one could hope for. All that one looks for is here, and there is more. For those who are not familiar with Rachel Podger, she is a unique voice among violinists. She has absorbed the principles of late Baroque performance practice and made them a part of herself, so that the articulation and inflection of that rhetorical approach to music flows from her as a natural idiom of expression.
Since the additional movements of the Roman Catholic Mass (Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Credo) that appear in his B minor Mass were excluded, Bach's four missa breves (short masses) are essentially two-movement Lutheran works. Naturally, Bach being Bach, he subdivided the expansive Gloria into five shorter movements; set the texts as arias, duets, and choruses; and used an orchestra ensemble including strings, flutes, oboes, trumpets, and organ as a powerful and colorful accompaniment. But at the heart of all four works is the austere faith of Martin Luther, and the German reformer's strength, severity, and occasional sentimentality is at the spiritual core of Bach's sacred music.
The arrangement of Bach's Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, for string trio by Russian violinist and composer Dmitry Sitkovetsky has taken on a life of its town, with multiple performances and even a sort of electronic remix by Karlheinz Essl. The appeal for string chamber groups longing to share in Bach's riches is obvious, and for audiences it appears to be another case of Bach's music standing up to whatever you do to it. Like most other annotators, Hyperion's Nigel Simeone tries to claim that the arrangement is on a par with the numerous transcriptions Bach made of his own works. It is no such thing; the string chamber texture by its nature adds expressive devices that were not of Bach's world, and he would have found Sitkovetsky's version bizarre.
Who needs another recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations? After all, there have been so many great recordings of the work already – Landowska, Kempff, Gould, Pinnock, and Leonhardt, to name a few – that surely no one needs another recording of the Goldberg. Actually, everyone needs another recording of the Goldbergs provided that it's a recording of a great performance. There's too much in the Goldberg – too much brilliance, too much sorrow, too much humor, too much spirituality – for any one performance, even the best performance, to contain all of it. So long as the performance honors the work's honesty, integrity, and virtuosity, there's always room for another Goldberg on the shelf. This 2001 recording by Andras Schiff belongs on any shelf of great Goldbergs. Schiff has everything it takes – the virtuosity; the integrity; and most importantly, the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual honesty – to turn in a great Goldberg. Indeed, Schiff has already done so in his 1982 Decca recording of the work, a lucid and pellucid performance of tremendous beauty and depth. But as good as the 1982 recording was, the 2001 recording is better.
The late Nathan Milstein’s 1975 stereo remake (DG mid-price) was his own preferred version of these pillars of the violin repertoire with which he had been so associated since his youth in Odessa. But his (broadly faster) mid-Fifties New York account, now remastered and restored by EMI, was a famous yardstick of its time – a grandly phrased, aristocratically structured, Romantically resonant statement to treasure beside Menuhin and Heifetz. These are epic virtuoso performances justifying Milstein’s view that with this music the performer could ‘bask in the most glamorous light’. Stylistically, purists will object to their expressive liberty and gesture. But few will be able to resist their artistry or intensity of delivery.
Julian Bream is, without a doubt, one of the premiere classical guitarists of the modern recording era. Comparisons between great guitarists is often unfair and misleading as they each have their own styles - and each musician and his/her style tends to be particularly well suited to certain types of music. For example, Andres Segovia's style, cultivated by self-teaching throughout his now ended life, concentrated on flowing legatto smoothness and flowing melodies. Bream's, on the other hand, while equally masterful, is better characterized as emphasizing the precision and crispness of each and every individual note. What better composer to focus on to show this particular proclivity that J. S. Bach, whose work, having been written largely for the keyboards (harpsichord) but also for the lute and triple harp, tends to emphasize the kinds of music Bream excels at. Stacatto phrasings, each written to be played with crystalline exactness, are the types of pieces wherein Bream's magnificence is conspicuous and best showcased. Thus, the special relevance of this particular compilation of some of his best Bach work on this CD.