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Utmost Subtlety

Seung-Un Ha plays
Bach's Goldberg Variations,
reviewed by

Seung-Un Ha    6 34479 80881 4

The Goldberg Variations - J S Bach. Seung-Un Ha, piano. © 2008 Seung-Un Ha

Bach decided in his ripest maturity to exhaust many of the possibilities available to contrapuntal art. The Musical Offering for Frederick the Great and the incomplete Art of Fugue are indeed staggering intellectual achievements. If some of the canons in both works are more satisfying to the eye than to the ear, no such criticism can be levelled against these Variations, in which the nine canons at their successive intervals solve the conundrums posed with effortless ease, and produce at the same time music of supreme beauty.

Bach clearly envisioned a two-manual harpsichord, which can easily accommodate separate parts starting at the further extremes of the instrument, converging towards the centre, crossing, and then proceeding outwards. It is Seung-Un Ha's achievement that her performance is so nuanced there is not a moment when her one manual seems insufficient. There is the utmost subtlety in her tonal gradations, and an exemplary clarity in the part-playing.

Initially I felt cheated by her decision to omit all repeats. A forty-minute 'Goldberg' is brisk indeed. I'm sure the sleepless Count must occasionally have demanded 'that strain again', but of course any of us is at liberty to request our equipment to repeat a variation, if not its separate halves. Bach's anchor throughout the work is the bass to the original aria; here it supports a four voice Fuguetta.

Listen -- Bach: Variation 10: Fughetta (Goldberg Variations)
(track 11, 0:30-0:44) © 2008 Seung-Un Ha

Perhaps the most moving of the canons is that at the 'seventh' and in the minor mode.

Listen -- Bach: Variation 21: Canone alla settima (Goldberg Variations)
(track 22, 0:00-0:27) © 2008 Seung-Un Ha

Every third variation exploits the utmost brilliance of the instrument, making staggering demands on the performer's technique. Here there is total assurance and a pleasurable feeling that there are plenty of reserves for any additional notches on the metronome.

Listen -- Bach: Variation 23 (Goldberg Variations)
(track 24, 0:11-0:26) © 2008 Seung-Un Ha

My only criticism concerns the final variation, when Bach deploys a 'Quodlibet' or mélange of popular tunes familiar to anyone musically literate at the time. Here, and only here, I feel the music needs a more robust approach.

Listen -- Bach: Variation 30: Quodlibet (Goldberg Variations)
(track 31, 0:44-1:06) © 2008 Seung-Un Ha

Copyright © 16 March 2009 Robert Anderson, Cairo, Egypt




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Record Box is Music & Vision's regular series of shorter CD reviews