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From the laid back to the grand, Bach's masterpiece is given two very different, but equally as impressive, interpretations
Repertoire: Goldberg Variations
Artists: Andreas Staier (harpsichord)
Label: Harmonia Mundi HMC 902058
Appreciation of the harpsichord has come a long way since Thomas Beecham described the piano’s keyboard predecessor as sounding ‘like two skeletons copulating on a corrugated tin roof’. Each of the two instruments here lends its different variety of tone-colour and registration to the great masterpiece of the harpsichord repertory – Bach’s massive set of 30 variations on a tune of his own, named after his young student Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. Andreas Staier’s Harmonia Mundi release comes with some impossibly pretentious booklet articles (using words like ‘distantiation’). The guide to the music itself is the accompanying 25-minute DVD, where Staier explores the work’s background and usefully illustrates what’s involved. In his performance he opts for relatively sumptuous and mellow sound, not changing his choice of colours all that much so that it’s all the more striking when he does so. Matthew Halls’s Linn recording takes a grander approach, bringing out the work’s immensity with bolder contrasts of registration in a more resonant acoustic. He also puts these splendours into context by preceding them with the sprightly, Bach-attributed Sarabanda con Partite (another set of variations on an opening theme) and finishing with the Aria Variata, whose sparer sonorities are pleasingly like a sorbet after the massively rich main course. Halls’s booklet note is detailed, expert, helpful and never too abstruse. If you like to listen to music lying back (and why not?), you’ll prefer Staier. If you want to engage more proactively with one of Bach’s greatest masterworks, then Halls is your man.