French pianist Alexandre Tharaud’s latest recording on the Erato label, now distributed by Warner Classics, has been given a rather peculiar release strategy. The album, which consists entirely of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of (“Goldberg”) variations on an Aria theme, first appeared on vinyl at the beginning of this month. The packaging did not include any reading matter, either on the back of the sleeve or on the inside; but the disc itself was accompanied by a small slip of paper. This provided a URL and a coupon code that would entitle the bearer to a free download of the entire album. Needless to say, the digital download version is also available for sale from Amazon.com. Those who have forsaken their vinyl turntables for CD players will have to wait until next Friday for the CD release, for which Amazon is currently taking pre-orders.
Regular readers know that I have done my best to keep this site focused on music, rather than marketing. I gave up my vinyl equipment when I had to downsize my living quarters, and I have to say that I have never really missed it. I know that there is a passionate back-to-vinyl movement out there; but I take it about as seriously as I take Woody Allen’s old joke about listening to a long-playing record of Marcel Marceau played with a teakwood needle. However, in the domain of musicianship, my acquaintance with Tharaud has thus far been limited to his Autograph album, which was basically a compilation of encore pieces and which did not make much of an impression.
Nevertheless, this season there was an interesting connection between BWV 988 and encore selection. It was provided by András Schiff in the final concert given in his “last piano sonatas” project, the one at which he played the very last piano sonatas composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert. While Schiff has acquired a reputation for concluding a long concert with a long encore, in this case he chose only to play the BWV 988 Aria, a lingering recollection of the second (and final) movement of Beethoven’s Opus 111 sonata, which happens to be an elaborate (and occasionally perplexing) set of variations on the theme that Beethoven marked as “Arietta.” Needless to say, this was not the sort of encore that Tharaud had selected for his Autograph album.
More importantly, this new recording suggests that Tharaud both understood and respected both what BWV 998 was and why it was. The last time BWV 988 was a topic on this site, the article stressed that the music was not, strictly speaking, “about” either the harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg or his insomniac patron, Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, even if Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s story about them is fun to tell. Far more important is that BWV 988 constituted the fourth and final volume of the series that Bach called Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice)
Taken together, all four of these volumes provide valuable insights regarding Bach’s approach to pedagogy. This was basically a two-pronged affair. The first prong is more familiar, that of the technical proficiency involving when and how keys were struck in the interest of both clarity and expressiveness. The other prong shows up most explicitly on the title page of the two-part and three-part inventions (BWV 722–801), which received their name due to Bach’s claim that these compositions would cultivate the ability of the student “to have good inventions [ideas].”
From this point of view, Tharaud’s account of BWV 988 may be taken as a serious effort to do justice to both of these prongs. His success with the first almost goes without saying. Nevertheless, it is worth stressing that most of BWV 988 is based on counterpoint, rather than harmony. As a result, what is important is how effectively Tharaud sorts out the interleaving lines of counterpoint. The listener may then appreciate the intricacy of their interactions, rather than just letting all of the notes blur into a texture with relatively few distinguishing features. However, with that objective as a premise, Tharaud also knows how to apply phrasing technique to endow every passage with its own characteristic rhetorical color.
This latter is also one of the ways in which he must be inventive in terms of that second prong. In other words “good inventions” do not always have to do with coming up with new notes, as if performance were in the same league with jazz improvisation. Good inventions can just as easily involve providing new ways in which to listen to the notes; and there is definitely a freshness to Tharaud’s interpretation that makes it clear that he is trying to do far more than satisfy the checklist of a competition judge.
For those interested in collecting recordings, that last point is the one that seals the deal. It is easy enough to build a library of many different recordings of BWV 988. Why bother? The reason is that, like just about any score committed to paper by Bach, the marks on paper are only a point of departure for making music. From Bach’s point of view, the music only begins to emerge from a performer who has mastered both of his pedagogical priorities. Each performer is likely to do this in a different way, and Bach would not have expected him/her to do otherwise. Tharaud’s recording thus stands as yet another example of how one can make music from one particular collection of marks that Bach committed to paper, and it is a highly satisfying one.