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Bach, J.S.: Goldberg Variations
French harpsichordist Fr+ªd+ªrick Haas has made a name for himself with an aristocratic, pensive style more attuned to introspection than pyrotechnics. He has a profound knowledge of the inner workings of harpsichords and the secrets of their fine-tuning, and wrote the quirky booklet note for this release. Haas performs recitals on both harpsichord and fortepiano, plus he directs the Ausonia Ensemble. He owns the spellbindingly beautiful 1751 Henri Hemsch Harpsichord used on this recording of Bach's immortal Goldberg Variations. On using a French harpsichord for a decidedly German work, Hass explains, "Since the 1751 Hemsch is one of the most beautiful harpsichords in existence and its tone and mechanics are perfect, why not use it here? The interpreter's role is to make sure his French harpsichord speaks decent German." Hass' future recordings for La Dolce Volta will include Bach's English Suites and French Suites.
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And disappointment starts right at the beginning: I find that Haas’ statement of the aria lacks simplicity, with a little too much jerking of the regular pulse, making it sound unduly bumpy rather than serene. But okay, I’m ready to put aside differences of understanding of how this or that movement should be phrased, it is sensibility against sensibility, and I have no reason to place mine above Haas’.
But then variation unfolds after variation, and I find that Haas has no particular insights to offer. He hardly adds any ornamentation of his own, every repeat is played but none is varied. His tempos are very middle-of-the-road, meaning that the “fast” variations are not very fast, often verging even on placidity – not that Bach equipped them with any tempo indications, but they are those that are customarily played fast and easily lend themselves to being played so, and in fact there IS a pattern which allows to consider that Bach conceived them as such, in that they are the variations that come before the canons: 5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 23. That there is a pattern there doesn’t mean that the variations immediately after the canons need to be slow, although some – 13, 26 – obviously are, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that 26 is the double of 13. But while variations 7 and 19 are often played as a nostalgic sarabandes, they are very jaunty under Haas’ finger, and I hear little feeling and expressivity in that approach. The same kind of jerking around of pulse as in the aria mars the slow variation 26 (the famous “black pearl”, so dubbed by the great pioneer Wanda Landowska), losing any sense of serenity. There are touches of heavy-handedness in some of the canons, and Haas – let me blame it on his playing, not on his instrument and even less on the harpsichord in general – doesn’t really elucidate the intricated lines there, because there is no difference of color or dynamic level or anything between voice one and its canonic imitation (and add to that the bass line). In general I find that there is not enough variety and imagination in touch and articulation to always sustain attention and interest.
Other than his variation 16 (the Overture to part II), which is fine, powerful and lively, it is only after the slow variation 26 that Haas finally becomes more lively, as if he had wanted to stage a fireworks finale. But did he really need to go through 60 minutes of boredom to achieve that effect? Listening to his Goldbergs I’ve found myself finding the music at times boring, and turning the Goldbergs into boring music is a great crime against music.
The disc’s presentation is hip and trendy – the label’s blurb on the CD claims that “La Dolce Vita wants to change people’s perceptions of CDs so that they see them as luxury items. Each release will be designed as a work of art to create a notion of elegant rarity and a desire to belong to a club of musical epicureans”. Yeah, right, collect the box, who cares for the music and music making? How about a Louis Vuitton casing, while they’re at it? Wouldn’t it be great to attract Nouveau Riche Chinese and Russian buyers? The liner notes are principally a contribution by Haas explaining his rapport to the Goldbergs, with some sentences arbitrarily chosen and put in big cap letters. Not uninteresting to read something so personal to the performer, but therein Haas confesses that, with a work so “explored by numerous great musicians, who have often left us with remarkable interpretations, it would be an act of vanity to pretend to have discovered something new”.
Well, experience of recordings shows that great artists, however trodden a composition, always keep discovering new things in them. But not Haas with the Goldbergs, that’s for sure.
This one doesn't need to remain in my collection. It's going into the "for sale" bin, something I rarely do.