And still they come – excuse the cliché – Goldberg Variations that is, as surely as spring showers. This time it’s Lang Lang, both in live performance and in the studio. In terms of duration, both versions are interminable and imply that most, if not all, repeats are made. The overall result is rather “Tureckian”, after Rosalind Tureck, high priestess or grande dame of the work, whose marmoreal 1957 EMI recording became both the touchstone of later versions and the over reverential (piano) keyboard equivalent of the St Matthew Passion, for decades.
There’s no dreaded “overarching narrative” here: Both Lang Lang’s versions last more than 90’. Comparisons aren’t that easy: the opening aria of the studio version is more inflected (and interesting). What’s equally interesting is the number of recordings which adopt an adagio tempo here, where none is stipulated by the composer. Variation 2 is smoothly and convincingly legato in both. Variations 11 and 20 feature brilliant duet playing.
Lang Lang tends to handle the grander, more extrovert ones more successfully. For instance, in Variation 16, a stately French overture, he comes into his element. In the so-called “Black Pearl” Variation, No 25 (so-called by Wanda Landowska, though no-one ever appears to have discovered why) I thought he appeared, at almost 10 minutes, to be struggling to display “depth of feeling” but succeeded only in sounding slow and heavy. Other accounts with greater flow manage to sound both more enigmatic as well as more profound.
At other points, Lang Lang’s playing is certainly impressive and his sheer virtuosity is never in doubt. That said, stick to Perahia (either version) or Alexandre Tharaud.
Composer: JS Bach
Work: Goldberg Variations
Performer: Lang Lang p
Label: DG 4819701 (2CD)