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GRAMOPHONE (01/1999  )
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Deutsche Gramophon
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Reviewer: Stephen Plaistow

Forty years ago, when Rosalyn Tureck recorded the Goldberg Variations on two LPs for HMV (2/58), performances in public either by harpsichordists or pianists at the technical and musical level Tureck consistently attained were as rare as hen’s teeth. It was a time when, in this country, to hear a harpsichordist having a shot at the Goldberg was considered a treat, and the passages – not infrequent – when the player seemed to be having trouble with some barbed wire had to be accepted as par for the course. George Malcolm was better, of course, but with him too one was obliged to accept the weird and wonderful modern instruments that harpsichordists considered then to be the only ones suitable for concerts and recording. For the public, and certainly for the record-buying public, the Goldberg Variations were still in deep sleep.

In her 84th year, 40 years on, Tureck has recorded the work again. The world of Bach performance meanwhile has changed. It would be wrong to suggest she hasn’t changed with it but what was striking and specially admirable then calls these days for less notice. The precision of her articulation and her superfine control of part-playing are as impressive as ever, but one would not expect anything less and now other players also provide them. For me, it is the refinement of her touch which is specially distinctive and immediately apparent and good to meet again. And the concentration of her playing (which was always remarkable) is, I think, even greater. If asked to point to her at her best I would select the nine canonic variations where her delineation of the intertwining voices, imitating and shadowing each other, is wonderfully colourful and alive. Try Var. 12, for instance (disc 1, track 13 – the Canon at the interval of a fourth): what firmness the playing has in its resolve, what tightness of focus, and what skill there is in the execution.

There’s freshness too in her sound and rather more of it, I fancy, than on the old recording. Tureck certainly shows greater enterprise in her treatment of repeats, which used to be carbon copies of the first-time-round and are not so here. The repeats indeed are all observed, except in the reprise of the aria theme at the end. At the outset this takes a little under five minutes, which announces what you are in for. As before, tempos are slow and the thrust of the performance is monumental. It is this aspect of the operation that has never worn well with me. Granted, there is variety of characterization within her terms, but after a while I balk at the prospect of another hour or so of granite hewn and carved and long for the edifice to be built more swiftly, for the music to be allowed to run about a bit and invite the listener to take delight in its course and caprices. The brilliant numbers, no less important to Bach’s scheme than the contrapuntal tours de force, tend to sound heavy and like slow practice. One wishes Tureck would relish them more. You also have to accept a great deal of stabbing staccato and non-legato articulation – presumably in imitation of the harpsichord, but what harpsichord has ever sounded like this? She has said that she knew early in her career that she had to create a new technique for playing Bach – ‘a new physical technique’ – but I sometimes wonder whether it hasn’t brought with it an air of contrivance. This is not the kind of Bach playing that allows you to become unaware of the performer, or indeed of the rather strange mechanism that she turns the piano into. But then one could say the same of Glenn Gould.

So there you are. Tureck is Tureck – take her as you find her. You must take too DG’s close and dry sound; it is not inappropriate. When I feel least sympathetic to what (it seems to me) is imposed on the music I am minded to call her Goldberg a designer job. But I do like her, a lot of the time, and she is still a very remarkable artist, going strong. Be warned though: c’est bon mais c’est long.'

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