Monday 8 August 2022

Two very different approaches to Bach's Goldberg Variations from harpsichordist Nathaniel Mander & violinist Jorge Jimenez

Nathaniel Mander with the harpsichord used for his recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations
Nathaniel Mander with the harpsichord used for his recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations

Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations; Nathaniel Mander; ICSM Records
Johann Sebastian Bach, transcribed Jorge Jimenez: Goldberg Variations; Jorge Jimenez; Pan Classics

Two very different approaches to Bach's iconic variations, with a harpsichordist taking an admirably direct and musical approach, and a violinist channelling Bach's own writing for solo violin

There is something of a mystery at the heart of Bach's Goldberg Variations. They were the fourth volume of Bach's work to be published in 1741, under the soubriquet Clavierubung IV (Keyboard practice), though the name was the publishers, linking the volume to the previous three of Bach's that had been published during the 1730s. It can be seen as an educational demonstration of what a skilled craftsman might do with a theme. But there is also that story.

Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749-1818) in his biography of Bach (published in 1802) tells the story of how Johann Gottlieb Goldberg played the variations to a Count who could not sleep. It is all probably apocryphal but it remains a tantalising and intriguing image. 

But there is also another mystery, one that each musician must clear up; how to play the music. Bach's publication is sparse in its indications, a musician has to make up their own mind about tempo, style, instrument and more. Two very different views of the Goldberg Variations have recently hit my desk. On ICSM Records' Chronos imprint, harpsichordist Nathaniel Mander [not yet released] performs the work on a harpsichord, a modern copy by Andrew Garlick (1990) of one by Jean-Claude Goujon from 1749. But on Pan Classics, Jorge Jimenez has transcribed the variations for Baroque violin.

In his introduction to the recording, his solo debut recording, Nathaniel Mander comments that 'for all the complexities and intricacies of Bach's keyboard writing, there are almost no specific musical instructions. Even where there are registration directions, Bach often gives you a choice. This allows for such a personal approach'. Mander takes an admirably clean and direct approach to the music.

He is aided by the wonderfully transparent, clear and warm sound from the harpsichord, which is evidently his own. It is one where individual notes have a very strong centre, the sound quality has only a little of the harpsichord action in it, meaning that the music comes over as music rather than as musical texture. The sound, both in treble and bass, has a fine depth to it. The instrument, as captured here, is also quite resonant and the result is that Mander's sense of line comes over. He plays with a strong touch, robust almost, but with a steadiness of tempo, sensitivity to phrasing and find rhythmic style.

There isn't too much rubato, each movement is set in a clear tempo and the melodic lines are finely expressive. There is a nice directness to the performance, almost something down to earth, we seem to be experiencing the music rather than a theoretical treatise about it. The more technical moments are doing with admirable zest and bravura. It is, simply, refreshing and a recording of the work that I would be very happy to live with.

Johann Sebastian Bach, transcribed Jorge Jimenez: Goldberg Variation; Jorge Jimenez; Pan Classics
Jorge Jimenez' new disc, Rethinking Bach, is very much a passion project, and he admits that it is madness to consider transcribing the complexities of the Goldberg Variations onto an instrument that struggles to maintain more than one musical line at once. But Bach was a great transcriber, music from his Cello Suites appears in lute disguise, one of his more famous organ works probably started out life as a piece for solo violin. So why not?

Jimenez has been working towards the completed transcription for some time, during lockdown he produced four Rethinking Bach films in which he worked his way towards his transcriptions of the Goldberg Variations. Jimenez gives us a real transcription, we forget the original and are engaged by his dramatic narrative on the violin. Here, Jimenez uses his knowledge of the way Bach could write for the violin in works like the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin and suggests polyphonic textures with much string crossing, the result is engaging and convincing. He plays with discreet bravura, setting himself some real challenges in the denser, more complex variations, and solving them without any 'look at me' cleverness.

The first time you listen, what comes over is simply the imagination of the music and simple enjoyment of Jimenez' skill on the violin. He knows this style of music, and has a consummate way of expressing himself. But repeated listenings allow you to unpack the skill and imagination that went into the transcription, the way he has used Bach's technique of suggesting harmony via occasional notes and string crossings. 

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) - Goldberg Variations
Nathaniel Mander (harpsichord)
Recorded St Martin's Church, Barcheston, Warwickshire, 23-24 October 2020
CHRONOS ICSM 018 1CD [42:28]

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), transcribed Jorge Jimenez - Goldberg Variations
Jorge Jimenez (Baroque violin)
Recorded Auditori Eduard Toldra, Vilanova i la Geltru, Barcelona, 24-26 November 2019
PAN CLASSICS PC 10434 1CD [52:01]
Available via Jorge Jimenez' website

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