Bach: Goldberg Variations

Originally published on
17 Jan 2009

Harpists regularly perform works by Bach but this recording of the Goldberg Variations by Sylvain Blassel is not only a first but also a very persuasive demonstration of just how well this instrument is suited to his music.

The harp, and in particular this 1904 Erard harp that Blassel plays, creates an intimate sound-world in which one feels like an eavesdropper rather than an audience-member and it is this sense of listening-in on the music that is one of the most immediately attractive features of this disc. Such intimacy brings to mind that oft-repeated story of how Bach was commissioned to write these pieces to help ease Count Keyserlingk's insomnia, and this performance whilst not merely a lullaby is certainly 'calm and rather joyful' enough to make the old legend seem quite plausible.

I always find it impossible to consider the Goldberg Variations without acknowledging the towering genius of Glenn Gould and whilst I would not attempt make comparisons between Blassel and Gould there are some interesting similarities. Firstly, and quite facile in many ways, is the creak of Blassel's chair which is a charming illustration of the level of intimacy achieved on this disc and secondly, harder to quantify, is the sense of both artists being utterly lost in their act of performance. Like Gould, Sylvain Blassel clearly has an astonishingly good technique, and over the course of this album he demonstrates an intuitive understanding of Bach's music which, in my opinion, never falters.

The control that Blassel exhibits is calm and studied since he shows no loss of the linear or contrapuntal qualities of this music as he nuances each line with a personal character which he is never afraid to make astonishingly soft even when the music must be reaching the limits of what is possible on the harp. Most touchingly, when he plays the aria da capo there is a real sense of having been on a whole journey and ending up back at the start yet quite changed by the experience. This sense of change comes as a surprise to the listener because Blassel's playing is so subtle that the range of emotions one experiences en-route happen almost subliminally. There are, of course, countless layers of understanding to the Goldberg Variations and even those who listen to them regularly are always finding fresh insights with each performance, but on this disc, more than most, we hear the texture and the detail quite anew since the harp brings a different and exciting spectrum of possibilities to the music.

Blassel is joined by his teacher, Fabrice Pierre for his own arrangement of the fourteen canons which were discovered in a copy of the Goldberg variations in 1974. These two harpists are almost telepathic in their ensemble and, artistically, are as well-matched as their instruments (Pierre plays a 1966 Erard) making their playing seamless in the extreme. I thought it would be difficult to want to listen to these canons after the enormity of the Goldberg Variations but they are just so good, both in musical content and performance that I found I couldn't resist enjoying them in the same sitting.
This is a beautifully balanced programme and so well executed that I feel sure it will appeal to all Bach-lovers. I am reminded of Glenn Gould's interview with Tim Page following the release of his 1981 Goldberg variations recording when they discussed the debate surrounding Bach's works played on the piano. Gould referred to Bach's appetite for transcribing both his own music and that of others and went on to say that because of this he was sure that Bach would have felt the spirit of the performance was more important than a specific sonority. With that in mind, I do hope that this recording won't upset the purists, since it is a beautifully realised project and one which gives us a new perspective on both the harp and these beautiful works.

Sylvain Blassel, harp (Lontano 2564 69199-6)


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