1. Prelude in C Major 1:06, Fugue in C Major 2:48 (BWV 846) 2. Prelude in C Minor 4:40, Fugue in C Minor 6:20 (BWV 847) 3. Prelude in C-Sharp Major 7:58, Fugue in C-Sharp Major 9:30 (BWV 848) 4. Prelude in C-Sharp Minor 11:59, Fugue in C-Sharp Minor 14:23 (BWV 849) 5. Prelude in D Major 18:34, Fugue in D Major 19:56 (BWV 850) 6. Prelude in D Minor 21:37, Fugue in D Minor 23:50 (BWV 851) 7. Prelude in E-Flat Major 26:15, Fugue in E-Flat Major 29:58 (BWV 852) 8. Prelude in E-Sharp Minor 31:38, Fugue in D-Sharp Minor 35:03 (BWV 853) 9. Prelude in E Major 39:48, Fugue in E Major 41:06 (BWV 854) 10. Prelude in E Minor 42:11, Fugue in E Minor 44:24 (BWV 855) 11. Prelude in F Major 45:29, Fugue in F Major 46:27 (BWV 856) 12. Prelude in F Minor 47:47, Fugue in F Minor 49:49 (BWV 857) 13. Prelude in F-Sharp Major 54:17, Fugue in F-Sharp Major 55:51 (BWV 858) 14. Prelude in F-Sharp Minor 57:42, Fugue in F-Sharp Minor 58:38 (BWV 859) 15. Prelude in G Major 1:01:23, Fugue in G Major 1:02:17 (BWV 860) 16. Prelude in G Minor 1:05:20, Fugue in G Minor 1:07:28 (BWV 861) 17. Prelude in A-Flat Major 1:09:03, Fugue in A-Flat Major 1:10:21 (BWV 862) 18. Prelude in G-Sharp Minor 1:12:36, Fugue in G-Sharp Minor 1:14:04 (BWV 863) 19. Prelude in A Major 1:16:07, Fugue in A Major 1:17:18 (BWV 864) 20. Prelude in A Minor 1:19:35, Fugue in A Minor 1:20:31 (BWV 865) 21. Prelude in B-Flat Major 1:24:24, Fugue in B-Flat Major 1:25:44 (BWV 866) 22. Prelude in B-Flat Minor 1:27:24, Fugue in B-Flat Minor 1:30:03 (BWV 867) 23. Prelude in B Major 1:32:58, Fugue in B Major 1:33:59 (BWV 868) 24. Prelude in B Minor 1:36:12, Fugue in B Minor 1:41:01 (BWV 869)
If you know Bach’s Goldberg Variations only through the eternally best-selling recordings by Glenn Gould, you have not really heard the work. Gould was a brilliant but idiosyncratic player whose approach to Bach might be compared to Laurence Olivier’s renditions of Shakespeare: the art can obscure the matter. Furthermore, the Goldbergs drastically change character when they are transferred from the harpsichord, for which they were written, to the piano. The equal-tempered tuning of the modern piano is markedly different from tuning systems of the early eighteenth century, and the instrument’s opulent sonorities cast a Romantic blur over Bach’s harmony and counterpoint. To avoid muddying the texture, pianists rely on a clean, detached style, and as a result the music too often sounds subdued, fastidious, even soporific.
This is not to say that presenting Bach on the piano is any sort of categorical mistake. The composer took an interest in new instruments, including the fortepiano, and his music should not be confined to the technologies of his time. When a pianist on the order of Murray Perahia or András Schiff undertakes the Goldbergs, it is hardly an inauthentic experience. Nor does the use of a harpsichord guarantee historical accuracy; no one knows for certain how these pieces should go. Even so, Bach on a harpsichord sounds clearer, brighter, more incisive—curiously, more modern. When Virgil Thomson heard the pioneering harpsichord revivalist Wanda Landowska play the Goldbergs in 1942, he spoke of “pungency and high relief.” The mechanism of the piano bops strings with felt-covered hammers. That of the harpsichord plucks the strings; notes pierce the ear more than they stroke it. Up close, the harpsichord can be a wild, prickly beast.
[By Alex Ross ]