Beth Levin’s Live(ly) Goldberg

Walt Mundkowsky

[April 2008.]

Cover of Centaur 2927

Johann Sebastian BACH: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. Beth Levin (pno). Centaur CRC 2927 (http://www.centaurrecords.com/). Distributed in the US by Qualiton (http://www.qualiton.com/).

I’m no fan of pianofied Baroque (or harpsichordized ragtime), but a strong personality can evade categories. I saluted Charles Rosen’s 1969 Goldberg Variations (Sony SBK 48173, O/P) here, notable for his penetrating smarts and sure fingers. Beth Levin is a poetic Schumann player (her Davidsbündlertänze would enrich the catalog), and this new Goldberg exhibits similar qualities of momentum, unity and wit.

A rippling Aria previews what follows — pristine voicing, tender passages with rhythmic spring, dynamic gradations (or subtle tremors) that never retard the flow. The 62:28 timing indicates generally fleet tempos and judicious repeats. Many performances sag around the midpoint; Levin proceeds as though from a single breath. (Some pedaled final cadences have the effect of movie freeze-frames.)

Several snapshots:

Variations IV & V

Create beauty, then erase it. Secco attacks at the start of No. IV (a favorite) turn into a deliciously pointed march. Dynamics serve structure, and the proportions are so right that I crave a repeat before the headlong velocity of No. V blots it out. Levin executes that about as rapidly as possible while retaining melodic shape (not a concern for many players).

Variation X, Fughetta

This “little fugue” is another touchstone for me. Levin is more deliberate than some, to savor the part-writing. A firm left hand ensures balance, and interior voices are unusually present.

Variation XV, Canon at the Fifth

Levin essays a hooded Innigkeit she uses nowhere else. I feel a persistent tug fighting forward motion — many tiny delays. A choked ending vanishes into the air.

Variation XX

Every worthwhile Goldberg rendition needs a “Huh?” aspect. I don’t quite grasp what Levin is after here. Overcast blocks give way to sparkling runs, but not without a considerable bump.

Variation XXV

Slow and purposeful, without the tenseness some provide. I see a windup device progressively losing its force — the descending figures are lovely. The 5:47 passes minus slack spots.

Peter Karl’s digital location work (captured 4-28-07 at Steinway Hall, NYC) presents a full-bodied instrument entire; I’m seldom aware of being led to a particular register. The audience is attentive and almost ideally quiet. Happily, the notes are Levin’s own guide to the piece, available onsite here, here and here.

My Goldbergs of choice are long gone — Kirkpatrick I (1952, issued in 2000 by Music & Arts), Rosen, Curtis (1977, EMI) and van Asperen (1990, EMI). For its fresh insight and arrow-like trajectory, Levin’s merits wide circulation.