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I write about the music I like and have purchased for the benefit of better understanding it and sharing my preferences with others.

Blandine Rannou performs Bach's Variations Goldberg

Rannou goldberg There are several Goldberg recordings I have avoided; two of late were those by Richard Egarr and the one by Andreas Staier. Both recordings had their critics; listening to track previews online didn't convince me I needed yet more interpretations on harpsichord. I had two by Pierre Hantaï, and I loved them. Dinnerstein teased on piano, but I held off. Then this offering by Ms. Rannou appeared. I sampled. I pre-ordered it through iTunes. Why? It was different. This is my first solo recording by Rannou to enter my collection. I immediately found she played with rubato and, what was this, with her own real interpretation? She was ornamenting like mad, to what, let's face it, is already a pretty ornamental work. She out-Baroqued everyone else. It was to be the essence of baroque: a dark, disfigured pearl (I couldn't resist with BWV 988), full of filigree and excess. I'll forego the pearl reference, and go further: she took an already very ornate ball of thread and tugged and pulled at it, like a cat might do. She created a big giant hairball. And sir, do you like hairballs? Well, the ones regurgitated by Ms. Rannou in a recording? Yes I do, very much. Ok, it's unfair to call this recording a giant hairball. First, Rannou plays on a beautiful instrument. It sparkles enough to make me think of glitter, with a neutral but ever-so-light tone. It's pleasing harpsichord, and she isn't afraid to play with it's extra features for changes in the timbre and flavor. So, yeah. Listen to the opening Aria. She takes her sweet time. Clocks that guy in at 7 minutes. (Yes, she took the repeats.) But get to, what, about the third measure, and then there's this little pause. The music suddenly is transformed into something once exact and metered to something… organic. She's stretching this Aria, a piece I play often, into something meditative. The same piece is performed at 3:22 to finish the recording. But it's in that first reading, with repeats, that we get a sense of what Rannou is made of. She's improvising. That space gives way to flourishes of extra notes that Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach never wrote. Heresy? Or… art? Towards the end, those last 10 seconds of the Aria, we're in for a rare treat in the world of digital recordings. The resolution (release of the hands) doesn't take place until the next track, our first glorious variation. She jumped right in. I believe in this so very much. On the repeat, she's showing off. More ornaments. More rubato. I think I am falling in love. A performance like this really is result of two ideas of authenticity (see Kivy) colliding. We get the baroque sound world with a beautiful harpsichord. But we also get that personal authenticity of the performer. I've resigned now in 2011 that we'll not know what JSB did with this piece. It's time to take our own stand. She here does. Each repeat taken is a garden of earthly delights. It doesn't mean I throw Hantaï away. It means I now have a real collaboration that is richer than most. Her additions won't take on the novelty they have now over time, of course. That's the reason Hantaï went for it twice. Glenn Gould the same. Variety is the spice of life. In variation 15, she takes an almost Scarlatti-esque approach, if we are to believe Domenico wrote his sonatas in some parts to resemble the sound of a full band, wherein chords take on crunches of dissonance to extract more volume, more fury, from the instrument. Rannou treats the flourishes across the keyboard not in regular time, but instead as pure flourish, dabbed-onto a canvas by a mad and flamboyant artist. Celebration! So how does Ms. Rannou do with the so-called Black Pearl variation, number 25? It's done here with a the left hand using the lute stop effect. Oh, that's interesting. She reads this one in over 9.5 minutes. At times it takes on an otherworldly charm, Bach through Rannou is channeling the underworld. Think exploring in dark caves. The repeat she honors with a seriousness, not polishing Bach's easily manipulated line here with filigree. Instead, she sticks to the score, for the most part, and by the time we reach the end, you might just scratch your head. "Late 20th century? Or was that a Goldberg Variation?" That takes talent to pull off, to lead us so far away from the main theme. I credit Mr. Bach. But our claveniste deserves credit too. The next variation, no. 26, would have been easy to pull off in a Gould-like frenzy, but she meters her time a little more conservatively. In fact, she plays the entire work (in about 90 minutes time) without ever approaching Gould-like speeds. In this one instance, I would have liked the athleticism of speed to contrast the depths of the caverns from our dark pearl. Ce la vie. We don't see eye to eye. She commands full sound from the instrument for Bach's Quodlibet, peppering on more notes as she did in the beginning, augmenting Bach's ingenious impregnation of a popular tune over the bass he's been using as the foundation for 29 previously iterations of the theme. Here, too, Rannou doesn't go as fast as others before her has; in many cases, her conservatism in tempo allows space upon the repeat for the extra baroqueness to seep in. Some might paint her reading as a quirky one, as I know everyone is not fond of the rubato excesses she's taken. And they are, to be fair, excesses. In some cases, as in variation 10, they downright take on the guise as big warts. And while I don't think warts on our bodies are ever admired for their beauty, these warts in sound are exactly what come to mind when I think of the definition of Baroque. Disfigured pearls. Hairballs. Don't let my run of negative connotations scare you. This is a remarkable interpretation. My primary criticism is the one made before: recorded history has shown us Gould. You almost have to show off in that other way that he did, with speed. While I don't get a super fast rendition of any one variation, I'm left with a unique reading that truly is so very different from the rest, by the musical solutions Rannou adds through her wisdom and technical talents. This was a really welcome addition to my personal collection.

Abel: Drexel Manuscript

Bach Sinfonias