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SchumannmagalhaescropI have a very peculiar relationship with the Rheinberger/Reger transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (BWV 988). I was first introduced to this wondrous work in 2011, when Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães performed it at the Klein Karoo Klassique Festival [in Oudtshoorn, South Africa]. I was so overwhelmed by the experience that I could not stop crying. In fact, I was so moved that I decided to quit my job. The exact same thing happened in 2012, at a concert in the Endler Hall at Stellenbosch University. With tears flowing (this time it was tears of joy), Bach-Rheinberger-Reger were again the impetus behind the metamorphosis of my life.

You can therefore understand my hesitance to buy the CD, which was released in September 2013 by TwoPianist Records. Because contrary to what legend may suggests, this version of the Goldberg Variations is definitely not going to cure my insomnia, it rather seems to play on various other parts of my receptive personality.

The Goldberg Variations, first published in 1741, are generally considered to be a “masterpiece of contrapuntal invention” and consists of a theme and thirty variations. The theme, an aria, is a simple, yet expressive and heavily ornamented melody, and the variations, according to Ralph Kirkpatrick, are a set ternary pattern of canons, genre pieces and lively arabesques. The variations are furthermore not based on the melody of the opening theme, but rather use its bass line, thereby creating “variations on the inner harmonic flow of the aria, rather than the opening aria or theme itself.”

Josef Rheinberger transcribed Bach’s monumental variation work, originally written for the harpsichord with two manuals, in 1883. The main objectives for his two-piano arrangement were to create sounds of orchestral dimensions and to enrich the work with elements of Romanticism, while staying true to Bach’s original structure and score. Almost two decades later, Max Reger further revised the Rheinberger arrangement by adding a canvas of dynamic markings, creating sonorities and “filling in harmonic layers which he felt was necessary for the music to be appreciated by modern ears.” Yet, the end result remains reasonably close to Bach’s original, and the recording by Schumann and Magalhães serves as an excellent reference for those who – whether familiar or unfamiliar with Bach’s original – want to explore and experience the outer limits of this enduring work.

Grant Chu Covell described this musical adventure as follows: “It’s much like coming across someone else’s copy of a book you know so well, and wondering why certain passages, punctuation and spaces were marked with a fluorescent highlighter.” This recording by Schumann and Magalhães does exactly that; it takes you on an exciting journey through charted and uncharted territory, revisiting favorite destinations and unlocking treasures that may previously have gone unnoticed.

For example, with their inspired interpretation and flawless precision, the duo perfectly captures and communicates the radical departures in mood and character between some of the variations. In fact, some of the most exciting seconds on this CD are the charged silences between some of the variations, especially between the opening aria and variation 1 and between variation 13 and 14 (the latter played with an exuberant chain of mordents that will send shivers of delight down your spine).

With variation 4, a miniature tour de force in syncopation, and variation 16, the imitation of the plucked string action of the harpsichord reminds us that we are still listening to Bach. And so does the emphasis on the passus duriusculus, a descending bass line symbolizing pain and suffering at the beginning of variation 21, perfectly captured in Rheinberger and Reger’s arrangements. However, the seducing ebb and flow of the pianos in variation 6 and its full range of orchestral colors in variation 12 challenge these Baroque antics.

The virtuosic showpieces of this transcription of the Goldberg Variations – variations 5, 11, 17, 20, 26 and 28 – are played in perfect unison as if with one mind, and, if it were possible, also one hand. It is truly so exhilarating to listen to that I just want to keep pressing the repeat button and listen to these showpieces over and over again, even at the risk of the experience becoming stale (but I can assure you that it won’t). Schumann and Magalhães also do not disappoint in revealing Bach’s often overlooked sense of humor in variation 23, which has been described as a “cheeky concoction of scales and antiphonal effects.”

Other favorites include variation 11, a two-part toccata with its cascading scales, and variation 13, a sarabande played so gently and with such fragility that one is almost too scared to breathe. Although some might argue that Schumann and Magalhães’s tempo on this latter variation is much slower than usual, the effect of the myriad sound colors created are certainly worth the experiment.

The work ends Aria da capo, a note-for-note repetition of the main theme. With this recording, it is not only the Aria that has been “transfigured by the life knowledge of having traversed thirty miraculous variations.”

Andra le Roux-Kemp – Artslink