Bach's Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, seem to be favorites of pianists issuing their work on small labels, and it's interesting to speculate on why this might be. Perhaps it's unusually easy to become immersed in this giant work over the long term and to feel that one has to set one's insights down in recorded form. The result has been a large number of undifferentiated variations on the Goldberg Variations. This release by South Carolina-born pianist Ronald Hawkins passes the test facing Goldberg neophytes: he delivers a distinctive version. It's highly pianistic, with no attempt to create a harpsichord-like texture, and after the massive minor variation 25 he even lets the tempo fluctuate in the following variation as if to release the tremendous tension that has built up. The variations don't seem to fall into the sets of three that are implicit in most readings of the work; each has its own emotional flavor, and the dynamic range is large. What makes Hawkins' approach different from old-school Romantic performances of Bach is that he uses the pedal comparatively lightly, on a par with Glenn Gould, perhaps. His differentiations of the texture are accomplished mostly with dynamics and especially attacks. Gould is certainly one of his inspirations, but the effect of his playing is different from Gould's; Hawkins is more meticulous, in a way, never racing, using the piano to emphasize inner voices and the beginnings of contrapuntal lines. The work never quite seems to take flight here as it does in many versions for both harpsichord and piano, but this is an unusual approach that adds to the long dialogue over this endlessly fascinating piece.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Goldberg Variations, for keyboard (Clavier-Übung IV), BWV 988 (BC L9)|