The Goldbergs on Harpsichord in NYC, 2017–18

Bach’s Goldberg Variations was published in Nuremberg in 1741 with the dryly descriptive title “Aria with assorted variations for a harpsichord with two manuals.” It was one of those rare works that Bach actually took the time and trouble to publish, and the work evidently represented an achievement that, as he entered what would be his final decade, he was determined to preserve for posterity.

The earliest known “recording” of the Goldbergs might surprise you: a piano-roll performance by Rudolf Serkin (ca. 1928), which you can find on YouTube, and it’s well worth a listen. The pioneering harpsichordist Wanda Landowska famously brought the Goldbergs to the record-buying public in the world-changing year of 1933. Since then, countless recordings of the Goldbergs have come out, with performances on harpsichord and piano—as well as on other instruments and in chamber arrangements (including one in the works by the baroque ensemble Repast)—and with multiple interpretations from Landowska, Rosalyn Tureck, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Gustav Leonhardt, Glenn Gould, Pierre Hantaï, and others.

While performances and recordings of the Goldbergs are now legion, something unusual is going on in New York City this season, with no fewer than four harpsichord performances of the work in Manhattan and one in nearby Princeton. Three of the performances are related to recent recordings of the works by the artists: Mahan Esfahani’s account on Deutsche Grammophon, Davide Pozzi’s on Pan Classics, and Ignacio Prego’s on Glossa.

So far I’ve attended three of the harpsichord performances, and each has offered a different take on this inexhaustible work. Mahan Esfahani’s performance at Miller Theater on October 26, 2017, featured an instrument quite familiar to me, since it usually resides in our living room, where it’s played by my wife: a double-manual instrument built in 2010 by the Montreal-based maker Yves Beaupré, fashioned on models by Blanchet and Hemsch. I have to say I enjoyed the wide variety of timbres that Esfahani achieved, as well as the markedly varied tempos, with exhilaratingly fleet passagework in some variations. Although I don’t usually care whether I can see the keyboard in a harpsichord recital, I do make an exception for the Goldbergs, where the extraordinary acrobatics required to play some of the variations seem to have been designed for display, and Esfahani’s technique was suitably dazzling. As on his 2016 recording, Esfahani played the opening Aria with some of the ornaments stripped away or simplified the first time through, then with the conventional ornaments on the repeats.

I first heard the young Spanish harpsichordist Ignacio Prego at a BEMF fringe concert in 2015, which he shared with Byron Schenckman, and I was eager to hear more from him. Prego’s recent recording of the Goldbergs, issued in 2016, impressed me with the elegance and beautifully shaped lines he brought to the piece, so I looked forward to hearing it live. He played in the intimate, wood-paneled recital space of the Kosciuszko Foundation as part of the Music Before 1800 series, where an aptly aristocratic atmosphere was conjured up. Prego’s approach, more introspective than Esfahani’s, had fewer extremes in tempo and a smaller number of registration changes and combinations, with an interpretation highlighting other subtleties in the cycle. His reading, for example, of the exquisite Variation 25, the last of the three minor-key variations, was particularly poised and expressive, bringing out the incipient Romanticism in its aching chromatics and serpentine, grace-noted melody while still keeping the aesthetic squarely in the mid-eighteenth century. The double-manual instrument, a French model after a 1765 Blanchet, was built for Jeffrey Grossman in 2016 by Allan Winkler.

Scheduling conflicts unfortunately prevented me from attending the Italian harpsichordist  Davide Pozzi’s two recitals in the Salon/Sanctuary series on January 18 and 19, though I have enjoyed his recent CD of the work (recorded in 2016, issued in 2017), played on an instrument by Cornelis Bom after Mietke. Sadly I also missed Angela Hewitt’s traversal on piano at Kaufmann Concert Hall of the 92nd Street Y on March 18.

I did, however, catch Adam Pearl’s recital in Princeton, New Jersey, on March 4, presented as part of the Dryden Ensemble’s series in the historic Miller Chapel, built in 1834. The warm acoustics and the gorgeous instrument—a 2016 double-manual by John Phillips after a harpsichord by Johann Heinrich Gräbner from 1739—in combination with Pearl’s cantabile playing made this a lush listening experience, but also one with plenty of flashes of virtuosity. As a visual bonus, the sun streamed in through the west window near the last quarter of the piece, illuminating Pearl’s hands like a spotlight, adding a touch of Caravaggesque drama to the finale. The Aria at the beginning was played first with the standard ornamentation, then with an overlay of more ornaments on the repeats; at the end of the cycle, by contrast, the Aria was presented with some of the written-in ornaments omitted the first time through, then added on the repeat.

My next Goldberg journey is on April 19, when the French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau will perform the work at the Morgan Library. I would be remiss if I neglected to mention that he will also perform the Goldbergs in the Capriccio Baroque series on Sunday, April 22, at 4:30.