Gustav Leonhardt, J.S. Bach: The Goldberg Variations

Thomas Bartlett

By Thomas Bartlett

on 04.22.11 in Reviews
Leonhardt’s first recording of the Variations, from 1953, is definitive.

Of the hundreds of available recordings of the Goldberg Variations, only a few are essential; this 1953 performance, famed Bach interpreter Gustav Leonhardt's first recording of the Variations, is one of them. Leonhardt was, along with Nikolas Harnoncourt, one of the most important figures in establishing the period instrument movement, advocating the use of historically accurate harpsichords and organs in the performance of Baroque music and mentoring a number of the scene's leading lights, including Christopher Hogwood and Ton Koopman. But his playing had little of the dry, motoric, mathematically exact style often associated with the movement. Indeed, he even performed Bach with a good deal of rubato — a rubato not inspired by a desire to squeeze some lyricism out of that least lyrical of all instruments, the harpsichord, as his predecessor Wanda Landowska had done, but instead used to ensure that every note of Bach's music was heard distinctly, was given the full attention that it deserved. That determination to make every note heard, along with Leonhardt's unusually and refreshingly spare use of ornamentation, results in a wonderfully lucid reading of the Goldberg Variations, played with unceasing focus, simplicity and grandeur.