Discreet brilliance in an awkward spot

Andreas Staier | Purcell Room, London
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The Independent Culture

Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations for a harpsichord with two manuals, which is why a pianist needs to negotiate some awkward cross-hands passages. Andreas Staier's late-evening performance on Friday demonstrated that the harpsichord absorbs ornaments naturally, giving a melodic line texture when it would otherwise be thin, and boosting the instrument's weak sustaining power. On the piano, those ornaments are not quite so natural; they need to be made so, or they become stumbling blocks.

Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations for a harpsichord with two manuals, which is why a pianist needs to negotiate some awkward cross-hands passages. Andreas Staier's late-evening performance on Friday demonstrated that the harpsichord absorbs ornaments naturally, giving a melodic line texture when it would otherwise be thin, and boosting the instrument's weak sustaining power. On the piano, those ornaments are not quite so natural; they need to be made so, or they become stumbling blocks.

Staier is a keyboard player of broad talents, and has, for example recorded the Schumann concerto on a period piano. He also has a brilliant technique, so he doesn't need to pull rhythms around to impress, or to conceal athletic shortcomings. He didn't pull anything around in the Goldberg except the theme itself, whose elegantly lazy phrases he curled gently with a sort of mannered nonchalance.

His registration, or choice of stops, was very restrained, too; so discreet, in fact, as hardly to be noticed until the 11th variation, in which one manual was given a more brilliant edge than the other, to highlight the intricate crossing of parts. With the 15th variation in the minor key, he used the muted-sounding lute stop for both hands.

The next variation, opening the second half of the whole work in the style of a French Overture, was brilliant again, and played with real bounce and gusto. After which, variations of colour became more frequent as the intensity of expression increased.

The chromatic, pathos-laden 25th variation seemed to be sobbing into a handkerchief, with muted left hand. Perhaps it needed a more resonant, sustained sound. Then sorrow was banished in a display of joyous brilliance. The jangling chords of the penultimate variation didn't quite ring as they might - they were too dryly percussive - but then you can only push the harpsichord so far.

And, of course, our expectations have been indelibly altered by performances on the piano, which make the Goldberg altogether a more impressive, monumental affair. Staier played for about 78 minutes, including all repeats, and never has the work felt so short - which, in a sense, is some sort of compliment.

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