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Thursday, 3 January 2019

Bach's Goldberg Variations

Asako Ogawa
Bach Goldberg Variations; Asako Ogawa Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 January 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A new recording of Bach's monumental work from the young London-based Japanese harpsichordist

J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations is a mountain which nearly every harpsichord player and many pianists wish to climb. Perhaps part of the fascination is that the work exists somewhat in isolation, we have little idea why Bach wrote it or for whom. The story that Bach wrote it for the keyboard player Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to play whilst soothing the insomnia of one Count Kaiserling may or may not be true. What is perhaps important is that the piece was published during Bach's lifetime under the title Clavier Ubung (keyboard exercise), in fact the fourth such under that name.

The publication came at a time when Bach seems to have been thinking about his legacy rather than writing for specific people or events, so he was creating the Mass in B minor and The Art of Fugue (this latter being prepared for publication at the time of his death). Yet The Goldberg Variations is by no means typical of Bach's keyboard writing.


In the booklet note to her new recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Japanese harpsichordist Asako Ogawa points out the amount of hand-crossing technique in the work (more than in any other Bach keyboard piece), and that the publication of Domenico Scarlatti's 30 Essercizi in 1738, and Rameau's Pieces de Clavecin in 1724 (with re-prints in 1731 and 1736) might be no co-incidence and knowledge of these may have spurred Bach on.


Based in London, Asako Ogawa studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and has studied with Nicholas Parle, James Johnstone, Laurence Cummings, and Steven Devine. She has been playing The Goldberg Variations since 2016 and recorded the present disc in July 2018, playing a modern copy of a harpsichord by Pascal Taskin by Alan Gotto of Norwich, which was re-voiced especially by herself with the guidance of the producer of this recording, harpsichordist Nicholas Parle.

The instrument has a bright, resonant tone though perhaps it also has slightly unyielding qualities and is not as seductive as it might be. But there again, do we want our Bach to be seductive? Certainly Ogawa takes a clear and measured approach to the piece, one which unfolds the work steadily without skittish diversion. There is a clarity to her approach, every detail of Bach's part writing is clear.

Yet within this she brings out the energy,  rhythmic liveliness and the vivid qualities of Bach's invention. Ogawa's comments in her booklet note are important, as we can perhaps detect these other European influences on her playing of the Bach, this is a Goldberg Variations which reflects Bach's European stature. Ogawa's use of notes inegales and ornamentation highlights these links, giving an enlivening sense of detail to individual variations. But these vivid moments are firmly held within a greater sense of the whole work, with its steady progression.

Repeated listening of this recording brought me back, I am afraid, to the sound of the harpsichord itself. For all Ogawa's sense of vivid detail and rhythmic enlivening, there is something rather monolithic and unyielding about the harpsichord sound, but perhaps this accurately reflects the nature of Bach's genius.

This is quite an intimate recording, we are in relatively close proximity to the harpsichord and it is recorded in quite a natural acoustic. The results take you into the music itself.



Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) - 'Goldberg' Variations BWV988
Asako Ogawa (harpsichord)
Recorded 26-27 July 2018, Penge Congregational Church, London

Available from Amazon.

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  • That Old Thing: remembering Covent Garden's revivals of historic productions in the 1980s - article
  • The Medieval Tendency - article
  • Bach's Christmas Oratorio at the St John's Smith Square Christmas Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Illuminating a neglected work: John Andrews & the BBC Concert Orchestra revive Sir Arthur Sullivan's sacred oratorio, The Light of the World  (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Seasonal touches: The Tallis Scholas & Peter Phillips at St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • The Dead City: Robert Carsen's production of Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Komische Oper, Berlin  (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Cause for Celebration: Roxanna Panufnik on the Last Night of the Proms & commemorating the Centenary of Polish Independence - interview
  • The Sixteen at Christmas - The Little Child  at Cadogan Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • A mash up of Gilbert & Sullivan and the Carry On films: Straus' The Pearls of Cleopatra at the Komische Oper, Berlin  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Messiah in Berlin: Handel's oratorio staged in the Philharmonie (★★★★★) - music theatre review
  • A triumphal Messiah: Andrew Arthur and the Hanover Band at Kings Place  (★★★★★) - concert review
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