x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Nicholas Angelich: Bach: Goldberg Variations

Nicholas Angerich offers a confident, attractive performance of JS Bach's Goldberg Variations.

Virgin Classics
****

At 41, Nicholas Angelich is still young enough to be establishing his range and repertoire, and this lovely recording feels like a riposte to anyone who has until now associated him purely with the passion and bravado of the Romantics. Thus far, the American pianist, who trained at the Paris Conservatoire, has put out recordings and solo performances that are securely anchored in the lush, rich stylings of the 19th century - Brahms, Schumann, Rachmaninov, stepping ahead a few years for Ravel, with Beethoven about as early as it got.

Here, though, he tackles one of JS Bach's most enduring and familiar works, the Goldberg Variations. It's a tough ask of anyone. Taking the precision of Bach's mathematical extrapolations through 30 elaborate variations and making them enticing enough to hold the attention and move the soul is a true test of a pianist's ability.

Glenn Gould's wonderfully idiosyncratic 1955 version has become such a benchmark for Goldberg recordings - though it remains controversial for its eccentricity - that it is almost impossible to listen to another version without comparing it with that "definitive" offering. If Angelich is intimidated by that, though, he doesn't show it, and for a pianist with his Romantic background, he employs admirable restraint in reigning in the rubato so characteristic of Gould and his followers, particularly in the opening Aria.

Yet in no way is this performance diffident: his attacks are firm, his tempo fluid without being too elastic, his dynamics delicate when required and robust in the allegros and allegrettos. The contrapuntal parts of the canons and fugues are beautifully articulated and distinct, so that the texture never feels muddy or over-complex. If there is a complaint, it is that occasionally the left-hand in the middle variations sounds a touch plodding - in variation 10, for example, a Fughetta, the accenting on the themes, though necessarily strong, feels slightly heavy-handed. But these are quibbles, and while Gould's recording may have offered the excitement and flair of a new talent and a rediscovered (at that time) work, times have changed. Angelich's quietly confident rendering of what is now an old favourite is, in the main, exemplary.

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