Friday, October 01, 2021

Double Review: Johann Sebastian Bach – Goldberg Variations – Alexandra Papastefanou, Hannes Minnaar

By Tal Agam

The Classic Review – September 28, 2021

Those who liked Alexandra Papastefanou's recent Bach recordings – the French Suites and two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier – will immediately recognize that this new recording of the Goldberg Variations comes from the same artist; Semi-improvisational style, expressive phrasing, and unashamed usage of the sustaining pedal, especially on the slower variations.

This is not a "clinical" Bach, nor is it philosophical or cold-hearted. There is a sense of spontaneity throughout, not coming out of recklessness, but out of intimate familiarity with the music. At times, though, Papastefanou can be very deliberate when trying to incorporate declamatory style, such as in the "Fughetta" of variation No.10 or the "alle breve" of variation No.22.

The ornamentations on repeats are very interesting, yet they sometimes get in the way of the melody, as in the fast variation No.5. The addition of bass notes to the final bars of the Aria da capo, reminiscent of score manipulations done by Wanda Landowska, is lost on me. And although the entire performance is flowing naturally, the transition from the "black pearl" variation to variation No.26 is rough, as if edited in. The recording quality is decent but not great – compared to Papastefanou's previous Bach recordings, the piano sound lost its edge, and in the fast variations sounds a bit muffled. An enjoyable Goldberg Variations nonetheless.

Hannes Minnaar showed impressive advocacy for romantic piano transcriptions to Bach, in his "Bach Inspirations" album of 2013, so in this case he is "back to basics" if you will, playing the original score along with a contemporary piece, Daan Manneke's "Gedanken zu Bach". There's a quiet sense of occasion in Minnaar's opening aria and following variations. His ornamentations are more subtle on repeats and although he plays some of the variations faster than Papastefanou, they never sound capricious. At 9'12" the "black pearl" variation is on the slow side but is impressively cohesive, certainly not as dragged as in Lang Lang's recent rendition.

I particularly liked Minnaar's way of differentiating between styles of variations – Variations 17 and 18 sound remarkably different yet related, as they should – and the care with which he treats each short and long notes. The recording in this case is excellent, highlighting every articulation and dynamic change. I haven't decided if the occasional emphasis on the left hand is attributed to the pianism, recording, or the instrument – a Chris Maene straight strung piano.

Out of these two Goldbergs, Minnaar better holds this masterpiece together as a complete whole, and will reveal itself more on repeated listening. Papastefanou does offer an emotional intensity that may appeal to many, if they are willing to compromise on less than ideal recorded sound.


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