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Bach: Goldberg Variations - Häkkinen

Bach: Goldberg Variations - Häkkinen

Alba Records  ABCD 283

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental


Bach: Goldberg Variations BWV 988

Aapo Häkkinen (harpsichord)

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Review by John Miller - October 1, 2012

Aapo Häkkinen (b.1976) is a Finnish keyboard player and conductor who specialises in the Baroque. He studied organ at the Sibelius Academy, then turned to harpsichord at the Amsterdam Sweelinck Conservatory with Bob Asperen, later working with Pierre Hantal in Paris. Gustav Leonhardt's guidance and encouragement has also played a large part in his keyboard work. Häkkinen is thus eminently qualified to record music by Bach, as he has shown in his excellent set of Bach's harpsichord concertos (Bach: Harpsichord Concertos Vol. 1 - Häkkinen) as player and conductor with his Helsinki Baroque Orchestra.

In the insert notes of this Goldbergs disc, Häkkinen pays a selfless tribute to Wanda Landowska, a pioneer of restoring the harpsichord to playing Baroque keyboard music after centuries of piano popularity. Rather than supply his own commentary, he prints her substantial article on the Goldberg Variations from 'La Revue Musicale' in 1933, translated by Douglas Restout ('Landowska on Music', 1964). She gives a detailed account of the unusual history of the piece, which is one of the towering pieces of keyboard music in the repertoire, and she comments authoritatively on each of the variations. Her account is both entertaining and enlightening, as fine an introduction to the music as could be. I would, however, have been very interested in what Häkkinen himself had to say about playing the Goldberg Variations, but his rather brief comments are only printed in Finnish. Presumably his thoughts are rooted in this performance; and eloquently so.

In the latter part of his life, Bach began husbanding the fruits of his labours as a teacher, producing collections of what has come to be regarded as transcendental works. The one we know as the Goldberg Variations was published in 1741 as "Keyboard Practice, consisting of an aria with diverse variations for the two-manual harpsichord", its dedication being simply "to music-lovers". Oddly enough, its modern title may be a misunderstanding; in 1802, Bach's biographer Forkel reported that Bach wrote the work for Count Keyserlingk (a diplomat and music patron in Dresden who knew Bach), to be played by Keyserlingk's harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. Forkel adds that Keyserlingk called the work HIS variations, and that Goldberg (who was only 13 or 14 at the time) played them for him during the Count's sleepless nights (Goldberg was later known as a virtuoso).

Häkkinen follows Bach's title and uses a dual manual harpsichord built after a C18th model in 2002 by the well-known maker Joel Katzman, tuned to A=394Hz tempérament ordinaire (modern concert pitch is A=440Hz). Unfortunately we are given no further specifications of the instrument, such as what registers it has on each manual and which couplings are possible. There are evidently 8' and 4' string sets or registers, which are used colourfully in various combinations for each variation, with couplings between registers producing the only changes in volume which harpsichords can make. It has a wonderfully sonorous 8' bass, where deep descending lines are frisson-making. Bach's instructions indicate which manuals (keyboards) are to be used, and he makes the keyboardist indulge in many overlaps or wide crossings of hands, especially in the more virtuosic variations, where he seems to be outdoing Domenico Scarlatti's notorious technical facility.

The large and mostly symmetrical structure of the piece is was carefully organised by Bach. A sarabande, described as an Aria, serves as the theme and is repeated in full at the end. The Aria and each variation itself has internal repeats, in the traditional Baroque aabb movement plan. It is mainly the bass line of the Aria which is the subject of each variation. As far as I can tell, Häkkinen plays all the repeats, each varied somewhat by judiciously added ornamentation, change in tone colour, additional rubato or generatin rhythmic lift, so that one can look forward to them rather than becoming impatient to move on. This leads to a disc timing of 79'38, which gives a roughly average set of tempi within the coterie of over a hundred recordings.

Häkkinen's playing of the Aria (now authenticated as by JSB himself) is a touch faster than most, but this allows the lower internal counter-voices to enchantingly take part, while maintaining an overall serenely calm and confident manner which is most affecting.

Bach's overall structural plan has a canon every third variation, and astonishingly he adds a further canonic voice to each (not to mention inverting some canons), so that beginning with a Canon at the Unison, he arrives at a Canon at the Ninth in variation 27. Häkkinen helps the listener's ear perceive the canons by bringing out the singing lines with a touch which simulates a smooth legato. Unlike many other recorded players, who seem bent on marmorialising the Goldbergs, Häkkinen realises that it is necessary to have a flowing tempo which carries the long melodic lines across the bars (sometimes many bars); otherwise the lines become disjunct pieces. Variation 13, for example, has a soaring melody as played by Aapo Häkkinen (b.1976) is a Finnish keyboard player and conductor, specialising in the Baroque. He studied organ at the Sibelius Academy, then turned to harpsichord at the Amsterdam Sweelinck Conservatory with Bob Asperen, followed by working with Pierre Hantal in Paris. Gustav Leonhardt's guidance and encouragement has also played a large part in his keyboard work. Häkkinen is thus eminently qualified to record music by Bach, as he has shown in his excellent set of Bach's harpsichord concertos (Bach: Harpsichord Concertos Vol. 1 - Häkkinen) with his Helsinki Baroque Orchestra.

In the insert notes of this Goldbergs disc, Häkkinen pays a selfless tribute to a pioneer of restoring the harpsichord to playing Baroque keyboard music, Wanda Landowska. Rather than supply his own commentary, he prints a substantial article on the Goldberg Variations by her, from 'La Revue Musicale' in 1933, translated by Douglas Restout ('Landowska on Music', 1964). She gives a detailed account of the unusual history of the piece, which is one of the towering pieces of keyboard music in the repertoire, and she comments authoritatively on each of the variations. Her account is both entertaining and enlightening, as fine an introduction to the music as could be. I would, however, have been very interested in what Häkkinen himself had to say about playing the Goldberg Variations, but his rather brief comments are only printed in Finnish. Presumably his thoughts are rooted in this performance; and eloquently so.

In the latter part of his life, Bach began husbanding the fruits of his labours as a teacher and producing collections of what has come to be regarded as transcendental works. The one we know as the Goldberg Variations was published in 1741 as "Keyboard Practice, consisting of an aria with diverse variations for the two-manual harpsichord", its dedication being simply "to music-lovers". Oddly enough, its modern title may be a misunderstanding; In 1802, Forkel, Bach's biographer, reported that Bach wrote the work for Count Keyserlingk, a diplomat and music patron in Dresden who knew Bach, to be played by Keyserlingk's harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. Forkel adds that Keyserlingk called the work HIS variations, and that Goldberg (who was only 13 or 14 at the time) played them for him during the Count's sleepless nights (Goldberg was later known as a virtuoso).

Häkkinen follows Bach's title and uses a dual manual harpsichord built after a C18th model in 2002 by the well-known maker Joel Katzman, tuned to A=394Hz tempérament ordinaire (modern concert pitch is A=440Hz). Unfortunately we are given no further specifications of the instrument, such as what registers it has on each manual and which couplings are possible. There are evidently eight foot and four foot registers, which are used colourfully in various combinations for each variation, with couplings between registers producing the only changes in volume which harpsichords can make. It has a wonderfully sonorous 8' bass, where deep descending lines are frisson-making. Bach's instructions indicate which manuals (keyboards) are to be used, and he makes the keyboardist indulge in many overlaps or wide crossings of hands, especially in the more virtuosic variations, where he seems to be outdoing Domenico Scarlatti's notorious technical facility.

The large structure of the piece is characteristically carefully organised by Bach. The theme, a sarabande described as an Aria, is repeated in full at the end, and each variation itself has repeats, in the traditional Baroque aabb movement plan. It is mainly the bass line of the Aria which is the subject of each variation. As far as I can tell, Häkkinen plays all the repeats, each varied somewhat by discreet ornamentation, change in tone colour, additional rubato or rhythmic lift, so that one can look forward to them rather than becoming impatient to move on. This leads to a disc timing of 79'38, which gives a roughly average set of tempi within the coterie of over a hundred recordings.

Häkkinen's playing of the Aria (now authenticated as by JSB himself) is a touch faster than most, but this allows the lower singing voices to make more sense, while maintaining a serenely calm and confident manner which is most affecting.

Bach's overall structure has a canon every third variation, and astonishingly he adds a further canonic voice on each (not to mention inverting some canons), so that beginning with a Canon at the Unison, he arrives at a Canon at the Ninth in variation 27. Häkkinen helps the listener's ear perceive the canons by bringing out the singing lines with a touch which simulates a smooth legato. Unlike many other recorded players, who seem bent on marmorialising the Goldbergs, Häkkinen realises that it is necessary to have a flowing tempo which carries the long melodic lines across the bars (sometimes many bars); otherwise the lines become disjunct pieces. Variation 13, for example, has a soaring melody as played by Häkkinen, full of emotion - an unmistakable JSB creation with its constantly evolving shape and unexpectedly varied rhythmic pulse.

Var 14 demonstrates Häkkinen's wit and playfulness; playing bass with the left hand, he revels in the eccentric swapping of phrases between hands, making it full of energy and fun. At the half-way point, the full registry of the harpsichord bursts into the swaggering French Overture with brilliant effect, sheer attention-seeking display. Faster, complex bravura variations follow, played with astonishing articulation of fluid runs and arpeggios in dazzling streams. At this point, Egarr, pursuing his cantabile Bach theory, is far too slow and without the necessary articulation.

At the end of this organic-feeling, vibrant, almost spontaneous reading, which reveals Häkkinen's evident joy of discovery, he completes the circle by returning to an Aria which is neither sad or nostalgic, but a reaffirmation of the serene and confident calm mood with which this glorious masterpiece started. Overall, I would say that Häkkinen has earned a place close to if not along with some of the best performers (and his teachers) such as Pinnock, Gilbert, Hantai and Leonhardt.

Since the other star of this recording is the harpsichord, Alba's sound, captured in a smallish Finnish church, is rich and detailed, portraying an instrument whose size we can easily judge; immediate but not close enough for internal movement noises such as registration shifts to intrude unduly. Some of the stops display slightly louder resonant "pings" on one or two notes, which draw the ear because of the high definition and rich collection of harmonics and overtones (the resonance of the bass in particular having already been mentioned). In multichannel, the harpsichord gains in perspective focus, while the acoustic remains relatively anonymous. Personally, I would have like a touch more ambience, but not at the expense of the crisp passage work which the engineers decided to exhibit as a priority.

Notes are in English, French and Finnish. My only major criticism is the dreadfully messy, dark cover photograph, which may well put off many buyers!

Häkkinen has produced a memorable Goldberg (or should it be Keyserlingk's?) Variations which grows in stature with every listening. Given the beautiful sound, without the fatigue frequently endured on CDs of harpsichord music, this is a disc to be heartily recommended.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and HRAudio.net

Performance:

Sonics (Stereo):

Sonics (Multichannel):

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