A couple of months ago, I was sent a review copy of a 2008 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations by the American pianist Beth Levin. I explained our usual drill: we're not expert reviewers here, but if I particularly loved the recording, I would write something about it.
I'm not sure I realised quite what I was taking on. If you're a trained musicologist and expert in recordings of Bach, none of what I'm about to say will be new to you. If, on the other hand, you're one of that elusive breed "the general classical music listener", it may help to explain why it's so difficult to make sense of any answer to the question "which recording should I buy".
Clearly, any recording has to pass some basic tests. The recording quality must be above a certain standard (unless you have particular cause to listen to a "vintage" recording), the edition played must be reasonably sensible (no outrageous cuts or excess of dubious additions), and the performer must be playing the notes correctly (give or take the odd fluff) and in line with what was written in the score. A majority of modern recordings pass these tests, and Levin's is no exception. She's certainly accurate, and the sound of the recorded piano is perfectly pleasant.
Next comes a question for you, the listener: do you want the thrill and imperfections of a live performance, or do you prefer the pristine clarity of a perfectly adjusted studio recording? There isn't a right or wrong here - it's purely a matter of your personal preference. If you're a committed fan of a particular work, you may even want one of each. Levin's recording is in concert, but I wouldn't have known it from the way it's recorded: not an ounce of sonic intrusion to distract you from the notes.
For an early music work, you also have a choice of instruments: do you want the authenticity of an original harpsichord, or the expressive versatility of a modern piano? Again, the choice is a matter of taste: Levin is clearly using a good modern piano.
But once you have disposed of these three questions, the territory becomes extremely murky, particularly with Bach. You can see the problem by going to IMSLP and looking at two copies of the score: the first edition, and the later edition by Czerny. The Czerny version looks pretty much the way piano students are used to seeing their music: there are tempo numbers, dynamic markings and all kinds of indications as to how Czerny thought that each variation should be played. The problem is that these were written by Czerny, not Bach. Go to the first edition, and apart from the obvious differences that it's hand-written and the quaver tails are written backwards compared to what you're used to, you realise that there are hardly any dynamics, expression or tempo marking at all. Bach has left it entirely up to the performer to play the music as he or she sees fit.
This means that in the course of a long work like the Goldberg Variations, the performer is making literally thousands of individual decisions as to the exact expression to be created out of each note or phrase. And at this point, I find myself totally unequipped to judge. As an example, I took the tenth variation, the Fughetta, and listened to half a dozen different versions on Spotify. There were enormous differences in each in the speed, the way it was accented and the way phrases were put together. The famous performances by Glenn Gould are each quite different from each other as well as from other pianists, and I can't think of any objective criteria by which they might be judged.
Any review that you read, therefore, is likely to be based primarily on how well the CD matches the reviewer's internal idea of how the music should sound. Unfortunately, there's no particularly good reason why this should match yours. In fact, there isn't even a guarantee that your idea of how the music should sound will stay consistent from one week to the next - depending on your mood and the increasing amount that you learn about the piece.
The Goldberg Variations is a work which permits almost infinite nuance and variety, and which will reward repeated listenings. The only advice I can give listeners is to listen to many different versions: one of them will take your fancy more than the others. And it could be Levin's.
7th January 2011