Fort Worth — French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, who performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations Thursday and Friday evenings as part of The Cliburn series at the Kimbell Art Museum, has big shoes to fill. The Goldbergs were not a major part of pianists’ repertoires until 1955, when a young Glenn Gould made his first of two recordings of the work. He then re-recorded the variations in 1981.
When I was in my late teens, I discovered the second of these two recordings, and listened to it nearly obsessively. I was fascinated by Gould’s audible humming, which created for me a sense that I was eavesdropping on a private performance, rather than listening to a sterilized, perfected recording. Soon after, my then-beau gave me a cassette tape (remember those?) of Trevor Pinnock’s recording for harpsichord. I listened to that recording repeatedly, too, until my roommate cautioned that all that jangly harpsichord was affecting her sanity (which was already tenuous, as it turned out).
So, listening to a live performance of the Goldbergs presents certain logistical difficulties for your critic, since I imprinted so strongly on two highly individual recordings of the piece. I thought I might miss Gould’s humming, but the light snoring of the man across the aisle was a fine substitute, it turned out. What I missed more in Tharaud’s performance was Gould’s absolute precision, and that’s not really fair. After all, not only is precision far easier to come by in an edited recording, but also, Gould was a notorious obsessive. He wrote in his own liner notes that Bach’s music features “unity born of craft and scrutiny,” and the same could be said of his playing, almost to a fault.
Still, Tharaud took a nine-month sabbatical to learn this piece, which is even more challenging when played on the single keyboard of a modern piano than on a double manual harpsichord—two keyboards means no tricky hand crossings. And though it wasn’t a perfect performance, it was an excellent one, including more repeats than many performances, and thus clocking in at an intermissionless 75 minutes.
Tharaud’s was at its core a deeply human performance, with minor irregularities in tempo and some dropped notes, but always a sense of Bach’s music. Crucially, Bach’s counterpoint was nearly always apparent in Tharaud’s playing, and occasionally a profound insistence crept in, with Tharaud grimacing ferociously. This was not Trevor Pinnock’s Bach any more than it was Gould’s, and the modern piano allows for more dynamic expressiveness than Bach could have dreamed of, an expressiveness exploited by Tharaud to generally positive effect.
The Goldberg Variations end with a repeat of the opening aria, and it was these final moments of the performance which lent it its power. Tharaud’s approach was so loving and tender that it seemed like a prayer to Bach’s spirit. I have seldom been more grateful to an audience than when they held their applause for nearly a minute after the last notes, providing a meditative close to a fine evening’s music.