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I know it isn't a very solid objection to harpsichord versions of the Goldberg Variations to say that the tinkle-jangle of that instrument, after a bit, gets on one's nerves. But so it is with me, so I turned to some of the best-known piano performances to see which suited me best. I compared Rosalyn Tureck's, both of Glenn Gould's and Murray Perahia's, and was somewhat surprised to find myself come down so decidedly in favor of this last. Perahia's, I think, is the most human Bach.
Tureck has been called the "high-priestess" of Bach--and I don't think that is entirely a compliment. Her 'Goldberg' seems indeed that of a priestess or prophetess searching for something divinely revelatory in the work; she approaches it in a state of awed reverence, and lingers over each note until she feels it has fully ripened in sacred significance. Needless to say, all repeats, representing the functional equivalent of Divine Will (that is to say, Bach's instructions), are faithfully, piously, observed. So this is a very slow, and, I felt, after awhile, somewhat monotonous 'Goldberg.' I can appreciate that reverence often enlarges the soul, and I genuinely miss the note of awe in everyday American life--so it's not as though there is nothing at all to recommend Tureck's interpretation. But in reaching so desperately for the spiritual, she necessarily sacrifices something human.
Gould, too, isn't really interested in a purely human Bach. He sees in him rather a manifestation of cool geometrical or gemlike purity. Even when he slows down in the 1981 version, he keeps the slightly mechanical touch--this is what the "Glossy misreading" review above so loudly endorses. This, too, is a plausible interpretation: I think every listener recognizes and responds to this otherworldly purity of Bach, and in Gould's case it combines neatly with virtuosic showmanship. And, after all, the variations were intended originally for the dynamically-challenged harpsichord.
But the Perahia 'Goldberg' makes clear what Gould ignores--once again, the Bach acquainted with and interested in conveying human dispositions and emotions. He interprets, for example, variation 25 as evoking the kind of suffering belonging to the Crucifixion, 26 as a response to the Resurrection, 27 as bitter mockery. Given Bach's profession and predilection it hardly seems unlikely that he would wish to be understood as capturing not just mathematical ideas but genuinely human responses. So many of the variations, too, are in dance forms, and Perahia is the only one of the three to allow anything plausibly dancelike to appear in them.
In short, Perahia's Variations contain the greatest variety, the most humane elegance; he lets them breathe, makes them live.