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What to say? Here are two performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, spread over four discs, released with a juggernaut publicity machine behind them. It’s the ‘four discs’ that give the clue, with timings of 91’37 for the studio and 92’56 for the live recording (the latter captured in March 2020 at Bach’s Thomaskirche, Leipzig). One can broadly describe the studio performance as the more disciplined in terms of Lang Lang’s characteristic eccentricities, but there’s still space for bass stabbings as early as the first variation, while in the third variation he exults in stilted rubato. Yet nothing can prepare you for Variation 15, the urtext indicating Andante; Lang Lang’s rendition is surely ‘Adagio molto possibile’. Then one has to change disc.

Repeats are observed, with extra decorations: if there’s an ornament to be found, Lang Lang will add it. The sustaining pedal in Variation 20 just sounds wrong, but it is the tempo indication of Adagio for Variation 25 that is like a red rag to a bull (or, more accurately, sedative to an addict). The over-emphasised lines of Variation 30 lead to a final Aria that drowns slowly in the pool of Lang Lang’s narcissism.

The live performance is yet more interventionist, its stabbings more brutal with bastardisations that veer from surface beauty to the merely odd. The recording itself is less focused. Like the studio performance, the Bernstein-Mahlerish final Aria revels in extremities of both tempo and volume.

Most performers know that less is more (Hewitt springs to mind) but this Goldberg is grotesquely distended, making it deeply unrecommendable. Surface ‘beauty’ cannot sustain even one complete listening, while inappropriate agogics and unsubtle underlinings had me continuously eyeing the off switch.

COLIN CLARKE Read the full review on Agora Classica


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