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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

Christophe Rousset, harpsichord
L'Oiseau-Lyre 444866-2 DDD 76:44
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French-born Christophe Rousset is L'Oiseau-Lyre's young star harpsichordist, and so it was only a matter of time before he got around to recording the Goldbergs – he already has several Bach discs under his belt. His publicity photos usually have made him look polite and virtuous, but there has been an image change with the current release, whose cover photo depicts Rousset as quite the wolfish rake. His playing, however, remains polite and virtuous!

Rousset's conservative account of this mighty work conveniently fills a single CD. He takes all the repeats, and these are left unembellished, with one or two negligible exceptions. Tempos are moderate throughout; the slow variations are not dirges, and the fast ones are not mere excuses for virtuosic display. If anything, Rousset could be accused of not contrasting the tempos enough. That's the sort of thing that one should do, I think, especially if one is going to take all the repeats. Also, I prefer a more smiling approach in places such as the penultimate variation, where Bach seems to be bumbling around for comic effect. On the plus side, Rousset plays with admirable clarity and rhythmic point. These are characteristics that we have been led to expect from his earlier releases, notably his set of Rameau's Pièces de Clavecin (also for L'Oiseau-Lyre). Indeed, this French-sounding performance is complemented by the harpsichord itself, a pretty-toned French Hemsch from 1751. No doubt Bach would have preferred more "cabbage and turnips" and a little less delicacy. However, we are free to choose among a bewildering number of recordings, and Rousset's tasteful sound and interpretations are models of their kind. This is very satisfying playing even if it's miles away from the nearest revolution. The sound is warm and well balanced, and mechanism noise is not a problem.

Copyright © 1998, Raymond Tuttle