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Returning to the Goldberg Variations after a gap of some 20 years, Zhu Xiao Mei presents a reading of the utmost purity, exemplified immediately by her way with the Theme, which exudes a lovely sense both of flow and peace.

There can be no greater praise for this reading that it loses out not one jot to Hewitt’s recent Hyperion reading. Mei has the most glorious staccato (try Variation I) and her Steinway is caught perfectly in this superb recording. Neither has she lost the sense of rhythmic energy and drive that characterised her earlier recording.

The re-recording came about as a result of prolonged exposure to the score and a need to re-communicate her ideas. Mei sees the long Variation XXV as the apex of the work, and feels that this later recording captures this moment better. Including all repeats, she presents a varied terrain wherein each texture is magnificently prepared and delivered: witness the superb continuous movement of Variation VI; the robust Variation VIII; or the way that she highlights the progressive, almost modern, writing in Variation XII. The delicacy of the close of Variation XV, imbued with the Affekt of lachrymose descending-scale fragments, is one of several remarkable moments on this journey; meanwhile Variation XXV seems to contain all of humanity’s pain. Variation XXIX brings a positively organ-like sonority, so that the contrast with the whispered reappearance of the theme a few variations later could hardly be greater.

There is a DVD, also from Accentus, of Mei performing the Goldberg Variations in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche (where Bach was Kapellmeister). Additionally, her story is told in her touching book, The Secret Piano. This most recent Goldberg set, though, is a stunning achievement.

COLIN CLARKE Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2017 - ©Rhinegold Publishing