Goldberg Variations/ Egarr, Wigmore Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

In the long history of variations for keyboard, Bach's Goldberg Variations stand with Beethoven's Diabelli Variations at the very summit of the art. Composed explicitly for two-manual harpsichord, the work comprises an aria, repeated at the end, and 30 variations, all but three of them in G major. At moderate tempi and with all repeats observed, a complete performance takes an hour-and-a-half.

Richard Egarr believes very strongly in all those repeats, which he claims "allow the music to sing". They also allow the player to colour the music differently second time round by switching hands between manuals - and, not least, to play it better. Just as well on this occasion, for what Egarr offered was pretty laid-back - as though he were strumming through the Variationsfor a few friends in his music room rather than projecting them to a packed Wigmore Hall.

In the graceful opening aria, it was evident that he commanded the true cantabile line that Bach himself strove to instil in his students. But this was sustained by a persistent looseness of articulation. Often in the ensuing variations - notably in No 15 (the canon at the fifth in contrary motion) - Egarr's left hand was slightly ahead of his right, a practice that Egarr evidently believes related to such other plucked instruments as the lute. Elsewhere, the right hand tended to get ahead, or to arpeggiate.

Just occasionally, this looseness threatened to become a mannerism: one longed in a variation such as No 23, with its scales of thirds, for just a bit of crisp rhythmic togetherness. Taken together with Egarr's choice of mostly steady speeds, the result was a fairly mellow, reflective account of the work. Missing was the drama other players have created by massing groups of variations into longer-term highs and lows of tension.

Yet, at best, the living, qualities of Egarr's playing transcended such qualifications. In No 25, the last and the most chromatic of the variations in B minor, Egarr's cautious, spider-like feeling out of the long, intricate melodic line in its hesitancies and decorative flurries took all of eight minutes. Yet our ears were with him every step of the way.