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Each voice speaks its own truth, and together they blend in contemplation.

Reviewed by Bob Jones, June 9, 2012

Japanese-German pianist Kimiko Ishizaka has punctuated her lifelong career with a unique turn on the redoubtable Goldberg Variations of J. S. Bach.  Teaming up with the versatile and gifted Canadian sound engineer Anne-Marie Sylvestre, she has made this striking recording available to all of us, for free.  The populists among us will loudly cheer the open-source format.  I liked being able to download it, at an average of about 215 kbps, for nothing at all.  But if access to it were the whole story, it would quickly run its course.  The thing to know about this offering is that it materially adds to the library of available audio versions of this masterpiece.  Whether you read this review or not, download the recording now, and delight in it for life.

Ms. Ishizaka and Ms. Sylvestre have exploited the luxury of capturing Bösendorfer’s 97-key “commanding flagship” 290 Imperial grand piano in Teldex Studio’s cavernous 5,000 square foot recording hall in Berlin.  Let’s just say that the instrument and the room are parts of the success of this endeavor.  Their rich sonority, coaxed by the pianist’s touch and the tonmeister’s ear, resonates warmly.

For anyone who trudges through this entire review, I’ll orient you by saying that my familiarity with the Goldberg Variations comes from Glenn Gould’s 1955 and 1980 bookend recordings, and by the strings transcription by Sitkovetsky.  All of these are intentionally distinctive, idiosyncratic even, as much about the artists as about the music.  If you know the work through recordings by others, you will bring another sensibility both to Ms. Ishizaka’s performance and to my thoughts on it.

About repeats:  she takes all of them (except at the end), and they are always welcome.  They plump up the recording to an hour and eighteen minutes, and if you love this music, you will appreciate every second of Ms. Ishizaka’s presentation of it. 

My impressions for each movement follow.

Aria

This feels like a gently guided tour through the transcendently lovely basis for the piece.  Ms. Ishizaka is not burdened by punctilious Baroque meter whenever there is a moment to savor.  She turns gracefully from one idea to the next, as if proudly showing you the next well appointed room in her house.  This aria is a revelation.

Variation 1

She has power to spare on this one.  Her Web site offers a video of her playing the entire variation – go watch it.  This introduction of the brilliance to come proceeds with thrilling clarity and confident voicing.  Are there two voices singing together, or is that one pianist?

Variation 2

She slows down and gives this variation its own setting in the piece, without trying to place it in context with variation 1, unlike Gould, who made a great show of a 3-beats-for-2 calculus.  No, Ms. Ishizaka lingers on moments here, and like a conductor lovingly guiding her orchestra, she slides up scales to impart special transition status to some of them. 

Variation 3 Canon on the unison

In the first of the work’s nine canons, we hear (at least in the repeats) the bass line more prominently than the echoed voices.  The effect is to anchor us to the harmonic structure – to see it as a journey all its own – and to free the voices to float, sometimes almost unnoticed, above the fray.  Note the difference in her choice with the canon on the octave. 

Variation 4

This showy variation is fully sunlit, without much nuance or shading, but at about a minute, it serves as an amuse bouche for the bold strides coming next.

Variation 5

Ms. Ishizaka shows us she can step brightly through a jaunty Baroque meter when she needs to. 

Variation 6 Canon on the second

The canon on the second is a surprise of careful steps, as if she were entering a secret garden hand-in-hand with a close friend a step behind her.  I was nudged to stop and notice the transparent soundstage.  When I close my eyes, the only place I could possibly be sitting is on the bench with her, my head where her head had to be as she played. 

Variation 7

Here she shows us the grace of serial trills and lilting meter.  One can imagine swaying briskly along a wide dappled woodland path.  Gentle ending.

Variation 8

As in many of the variations, here she precedes the repeat with an ever so brief pause to let us regroup.  Strong ending. 

Variation 9 Canon on the third

We can hear twin sisters walking hand in hand through a gallery after hours. 

Variation 10

If this is the most self-important variation, with its exaggerated repetition of the trilled motive, Ms. Ishizaka avoids the bombast that many players fall into here.  She keeps a light touch, preferring to let the melody hypnotize, rather than numb us. 

Variation 11

The voices have a clarity not often felt with others, in whose hands the voices can get muddy.  Here, each voice speaks its own truth, and together they blend in contemplation.  It’s a moment to reflect on the work’s central purpose before what I consider to be its most splendidly conceived passage.

Variation 12 Canon on the fourth

Thus begins a three-variation sequence that is the highlight and climax of the first half of the work.  Bach’s counterpoint is at its most intelligent in this canon as it both inverts and echoes the voice.  The discipline of his writing is on bold display, and this performance gives us full access to his genius.

Variation 13

After the many treats heard so far, my ears were primed to hear what can be the pivot point of the entire work.  This 12/16 arabesque in the high register has the power to transport the listener to tears with its unselfconscious innocence and simple repose.  I must say that Ms. Ishizaka’s interpretation jarred me.  Throughout, I was forced to adapt to the faster tempo and homogeneous phrasing she chose.  It’s flawlessly played, but for me the fragile and confident beauty of the soprano voice and its two masculine supporting lines were blended bland like a swirl cake stirred past the two-tone point.  I’ll need to give this one many more listenings before I connect with her intentions for it.

Variation 14

After the childlike reverie of variation 13, this variation can risk becoming didactic and imposing, even as it reasserts a commanding hold on the rudder of the work.  Ms. Ishizaka chooses an understated demeanor for the opening bars, and pulls her punches in the spritely stepdown rhythm.  And here is one point where her move into the first repeat seems to take a week.  But then she abruptly shifts meter at the midpoint.  I sensed an uncertainty about where to take this variation.  It should be about definitively closing the arc of the last three variations before the melancholy canon on the fifth, but instead it seems to shift its weight tentatively between its feet, before settling a little awkwardly down at the end.  For me, there was an opportunity lost.  If she chose to retake this one, I’d be happy to download the replacement.

Variation 15 Canon on the fifth

The timeless appeal of the Goldbergs is revealed nowhere better than by Bach’s choice of how to handle the canon on the fifth.  From G to D, the possibilities for lightning-fast, melismatic runs suggest a bright, up-tempo parade.  But no:  we get it in minor key and lugubrious meter, and, as with variation 12, in contrary motion.  Such was his gravitas that he chose the interval with the most sunlight to lead us on a descent into the crypt.  Ms. Ishizaka deftly produces the somber mood, but without sentiment and with crystal clear voice phrasing.  It is perhaps the triumph of her variations.  As we settle in to the final bar, we’re well prepared for the intermission and the popcorn before the curtain rises on the “overture” of the next variation.

Variation 16

And the curtain does go up.  Again, without ostentation, Ms. Ishizaka grandly waves her showman’s arm through the flourishes, arpeggios, and pizzicatos of the overture’s first half.  Once the full stage is in view, she’s ready to show us how to listen to Baroque music.  Her elegant touch just slightly places each four-note motive in relief against the woven fabric.

Variation 17

This one seems to be about getting through it without injury.

Variation 18 Canon on the sixth

Ms. Ishizaka uses this concordant interval to return to the childlike wonder of the Gemini sisters in the canon on the third.  It’s lovely and unassuming, a healthy tonic after the Type A rush of the previous variation.

Variation 19

Here, she steps up the tempo, investing the plucky motive with a more mature, inquisitive feel than we hear from Gould.  The sisters are growing up.  

Variation 20

What was Bach looking for in this variation?  Riddled with blistering triple meter and punctuated with contrasting blasts from the left hand, it’s almost set up to fail in the hands of anyone who strays from the mathematical clockwork.  Or, as Ms. Ishizaka would show us, if we loosen up the screws in our left brains, it can be a tone poem with splashes of color and moisture.  Her variation 20 is for people who can let go of the metronome and feel Baroque meter reaching across to our time. 

Variation 21 Canon on the seventh

The resonance and warmth of the recording are friends of this variation, which takes us on another twilight walk through the dew, albeit a rather brisk one.  You can hear the steady pulse of distant church bells over the moor. 

Variation 22

I hear more sustain in the voices here than I’m used to.  It gives the variation a stately carriage, dignified and even Victorian.  I can see the Corgies sleeping on the floor.

Variation 23

Wake up!  Every note counts here.  With an almost complete absence of dynamics, Ms. Ishizaka sounds like a schoolteacher who will test you on her every word. 

Variation 24 Canon on the eighth

Unlike in the canon on the unison, which leaned heavily on the continuo for its dramatic thrust, here the voices an octave apart are the stars. 

Variation 25

In this most quirky of the variations, Ms. Ishizaka gives us her own whimsical touch, landing on the up notes of the opening bars just a tad quicker than J. S. may have asked.  She continues this animation of the score throughout, in a clear signal that she knows what she’s doing.  Then, ouch!  At 2:10, it seems there is a bit of overmodulation, Ms. Sylvestre.  But back to this haunting variation:  at 9:18, it takes its time.  Put on the smoking jacket and turn down the light dimmer.  This careful meditation treads steadily along, but holds a power in its understatement that rewards attentive listening.  The final descent of the staircase is an inexorable thrill. 

Variation 26

Time for a sprint.  Ms. Ishizaka is not out to prove here that she can keep time or moderate the dynamics, as she expertly does do in many of the variations.  Instead, she’s going for it in a mad rush, although – with a master’s control of the boundaries – she stays clear of excess. 

Variation 27 Canon on the ninth

In case we forgot, she gets right back to a tick-tock tempo and monodynamic phrasing.  For nearly two minutes, she holds everything steady, but then…

Variation 28

For the first time, Ms. Ishizaka steps right into this variation without a breath from number 27.  Tempo is up, dynamics bounce around, and she wraps it up with a confident looseness that feels almost like a swagger.

Variation 29

We’re gearing up for the climax of the second half of the work, before the quodlibet to come.  Here she reminds us she can do anything:  breathless cascades, Jason-Bolt-like strides, and doily flourishes. 

Variation 30 Quodlibet

They’re both there:  “cabbage and turnips” and “come closer”.  Is the juxtaposition of these two folk songs the inspiration for the harmonic structure of the entire piece?  I often wonder.  Bach couldn’t have just arrived at the thirtieth variation and suddenly said, “oh, these two fit together and follow the harmony I just wrote for all the other variations.”  In any case, by now, we’re not surprised that Ms. Ishizaka commands the respect of the Bösendorfer 290 Imperial; she sings out the complementary melodies with declarative finesse.

Aria da Capo

If one can feel love from the touch of fingers on keys, one can feel it here.  Ms. Ishizaka, as much as anything that we learn about her from this recording, loves this music.  You know it when she reverently lets up for a telling moment, and then later does it again, and then ultimately resolves to land evenly on every step home.  No repeats here:  she’s said all she has to say already.  The rest is up to the listener. 

Summary

Throughout this recording, Kimiko Ishizaka displays a muscular, compassionate depth of feeling and control.  She knows this music, and she wants you to know it, too.  Every note is important to her.  She is methodical in using a range of dynamic nuance, choosing evenness of amplitude for some variations and more modulation for others.  Still, you will not hear whisper quiets and thundering pounds.  She and her collaborator Ms. Sylvestre obviously want to capture the maximum tonal richness in every passage, or maybe in every note.  It’s not Beethoven, and it’s not Romantic playing of Baroque.  We hear the bridge between the eighteenth and the twenty-first centuries, with summary Baroque leaking into modern-day film-score coloratura.  If you want to be surrounded by a competent, even commanding, treatment of the pinnacle of the variation form, sit back and drink in the nectar that is Ishizaka’s Goldberg Variations.  Never mind that it’s free:  let’s thank her for that.  Even better is that it shares and celebrates the listener’s love of this music.  Kimiko earns our trust, to let her guide us through it.