A few years back, I was driving across the Gold Star Bridge and turned on WMNR. After a couple measures of solo piano, I was baffled. What the heck is this weirdness? Scriabin? I nearly swerved off the bridge when I realized we were deep in the late variations of Bach's Goldberg Variations. I waited for the pianist's name: Maria Tipo.
The Goldbergs have been the gold standard of piano theme-and-variation recordings ever since Glen Gould's career-launching Columbia album in 1955. Most recently, the probing pianist Jeremy Denk dove into this 55-minute ocean of counterpoint with his take on the epic. Most people cling to a single version, either Gould's historic first recording or his 1980 meditative swan song, one of Andras Schiff's two recordings, Murray Perahia 2000 recording, or one of the original instrument harpsichord version, perhaps the one by the revered Wanda Landowska.
Italian pianist Maria Tipo recorded the variations in 1986, and this recording is unique among the dozens available. Her playing is highly personal and expressive, the sort of thing that drives purists crazy. Her tempos and dynamics are utterly situational, her accenting is eccentric, and she seeks out coloristic effects scorned by Bach purists. One reviewer advised readers to keep the disc in a plain brown wrapper and to enjoy it when friends are not around.
To me, this recording makes Gould sound like an automaton. This is living, breathing Bach, not Bach the Godhead. In counterpoint, Tipo's hands at times disconnect and drift as if in a dream state, dancing with each other in a sort of reverie.
If you know the Goldberg variations, you'll either be delighted, confused or appalled. If you don't know this wonderful music, just listen to the beauty of the opening aria, with arpeggios glittering like sun on the water and a languid, breathlike phrasing. Sheer delight … you might just stay onboard for the whole musical journey.
Have a favorite version of the Goldbergs? There's always room at the table …