Angela Hewitt wouldn’t be the first Canadian pianist to record Bach’s Goldberg Variations twice and, like Glenn Gould’s second performance, Hewitt takes longer over her remake. Her first, recorded in 1999, had critics throwing superlatives around like confetti: “If you only buy one Bach album in this anniversary year, let it be this one. A desert-island disc!” said the man in London’s Sunday Times. But my tropical island might not seem the perfect paradise if Hewitt’s was the only set of Goldbergs on offer.
In a world where John Butt exists and Mahan Esfahani has just recorded an exceptionally nuanced performance on harpsichord, complete with an appropriately juicy tuning temperament, it feels like Hewitt is trying to catch an argument that has long since moved on. Of course, it’s that very dependability that will endear this disc to many and, on its own terms, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Hewitt’s performance. Eyebrows might be raised when she ignores some repeats during the opening Aria – her first version was branded with the strapline “Includes all repeats!” – but otherwise her immaculate voice-leading, rapid-fire articulation and slipstream rhythmic momentum keep the flame burning.
Hewitt’s Fazioli is lighter-on-its-feet than the Steinway she used 16 years ago, but the instrument’s bland equal temperament undersells the inner tensions; on harpsichord lines don’t just move against line, they bend and flex their muscle. The wide dynamic bandwidth and overacted gestures in Variation 26 belong more to Liszt than Bach. Fine if you like romanticised Bach – but listeners wanting the authentic Baroque should turn to Esfahani.