Bach: Goldberg Variations

Davide Pozzi harpsichord
Pan Classics PC 10374

Pieter-Jan Belder harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 95471

One of the things that struck me about two more Goldbergs to add to those by Christine Schornsheim (reviewed last October) and Ignacio Prego’s (reviewed last November) is the difference in timing. Pozzi, without seeming hurried (though he is very nimble) takes a mere 61.19 to the 79.08 of Prego, the 74.05 of Schornsheim, and the 77.40 of Pieter-Jan Belder. A second distinguishing mark is the instrument.Both Schornsheim and Pozzi play copies of a Mietke, though a different instrument: Schornsheim’s is a copy by Christoph Kern after a ca. 1710 instrument, while Pozzi’s is by Cornelis Bom after an undescribed Mietke: the mellow tone of both of them reveals a family likeness. Most distinct is the instrument used by Pieter-Jan Belder who chooses to play on a recent copy of a Ruckers of 1624, dating almost a century before the others. The action is noisier, and I instinctively associate the more clunky sound with composers a generation of two earlier than Bach like Sweelinck and his pupils.

Of the notes accompanying the CDs, Pieter-Jan Belder’s are the fullest and most detailed for those who do not know the music so well or do not have a score in front of them. His notes tell us that this is a replacement for his 1999 recording (already a second version!), and will be his last. In spite of that, I find his playing more staid, and, although more flexible than Schornsheim’s, a trifle mannered. That and the more ‘old-fashioned’ sound of his Ruckers-type instrument, tend to give us a more schoolmasterly performance as opposed to Pozzi, who has grace and fluency abounding. Even when Pozzi is playing in a slow tempo, the momentum derived from the essential dance rhythms behind so many of the variations tell you where the whole movement is headed. I like it, in spite of the very minimalist essay (in German, English, French and Italian), which is hot on structure and numerology but thin on Belder’s kind of exposition.

This minimalist essay, though, is revealing. Looking at the way the 30 variations and two statements of the Aria can be divided, Pozzi points to the Trinitarian 10 by 3, with groups of 3 – two variations and a canon in each – but notes also the two sixteen-fold divisions, with the French Overture opening the second part. He tunes his instrument to a modified Werkmeister IV at 415, while Belder discloses nothing except the maker’s name – Titus Crijnen 2014.

So in preference to the scholarly and considered third version of Belder and second of Schornsheim, I find myself more captivated by Prego, and even more by Pozzi. Which version you would like to have – you may already have many – is very much a matter of individual taste. Both versions reviewed here are excellently recorded and faultlessly – though differently – played. You will need to hear them both before deciding for yourself, but of all four, I will tire least, I think, of Pozzi.

David Stancliffe