During COVID-19, many of us had sleepless nights, but imagine the Russian Count Kaiserling suffering from insomnia in the 1740s looking for a way to rest his weary, entitled head. Happily, (more for us than the noble) his resident harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg had an in with Johann Sebastian Bach (think Putin and Trump) resulting in this magnificent Aria and 30 Variations that could put no one to sleep but the artfully ignorant (some things never change…).
As luck would have it, there were two CDs of the same name in my “long-overdue” bin so why not now, as the world tries to sleep off 2020!
The first of these was from harpsichordist extraordinaire, Takae Ohnishi (2012).
For these ears, the opening Aria was a tad stilted and not always “secure”. Most assuredly, the canons fared much better; in the minor variations (G minor) I was surprised and disappointed that not all of the repeats were observed. Var. 15 was a wonderful exploration of “one”, while 19 felt a tad slow for “vivace”.
By the cycle’s end, there were more than enough memorable moments to recommend a hearing.
Recorded a dozen years earlier, Murray Perahia’s version is a magnificent display of insight, understanding and touch. Without, necessarily, the mechanical “interventions” of Ohnishi’s harpsichord (yet those with headphones will notice the pianist’s fingers “massaging” the keyboard), this performance on the piano is one that even Bach could only admire.
The first hearing of the Aria is a model of delicacy and exquisite voicing; 70 minutes later its return exudes still more shades of personal intimacy.
The variations are universally confident with No. 4 overflowing with strong statements, 5 a marvel of artful chattering, 10 revealing some touches of “blue”, while the triples of 11 need a tad more rhythmic assuredness. 13 is a model of clarity and “delicatisimo” followed by 14’s saucy fun. The first minor excursion (15) is exceptionally thoughtful then the Overture is as reliable and trustworthy as a clock. 23 has a few elements on the coquettish side; 25—the most harmonically adventuresome of the lot—never misses a repeat—adding considerably to the overall drama. For relief, the music box texture of 28 is ideally rendered—like a sorbet after a heavy meal. The final Quodlibet is appropriately sturdy, most certainly setting the stage for a heartfelt adieu.
I heartily recommend both discs: the former to provide context to the master’s original intentions; the latter to demonstrate just how far music (both performers and instruments) has come since 1741. JWR