Bach Goldberg Variations - Ji
The Korean pianist known as “Ji,” whose full name of Ji-Yong Kim, has recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, on his debut album for Warner Classics. Probably most famous for helping to make a commercial for Android featuring Beethoven, I’ve most admired his playing of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne from an album entitled Bach Exhibition.
Glenn Gould helped bring Bach’s variations to light for many, and his recording in 1955 helped launch his recording career. His style of playing, combined with his virtuosity in speed, somewhat tested Bach's music under the pressure of new ground for performance practice. The album helped reveal that Bach's music could withstand a variety of modern stresses. It helped show us just how profund his music was.
I’ve witnessed more than once that speed and articulation are tapped as variables in differentiating new performances of well-established pieces. Just as many times as we may have asked “do we really need another version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons?” another one comes out. Many of these recordings may fade into obscurity.
Dong-Hyek Lim’s recording of the Bach variations I enjoyed. Within the acoustic of a concert hall on the grand piano, he employed to great effect articulation and Gould speeds in a very polished program. His virtuosic talents weren’t all speed however; in a variation such as number 7, he tapped into his talents as a romantic pianist, bringing a dreamy sense to the music.
So no, Ji, I have many a recording of Bach’s variations. I don’t think there’s anything new to say. But then I sampled a few tracks. I purchased the album digitally. And I’m in awe.
One pianist that wasn’t afraid to “play around” a bit with Bach was Vladmir Feltsman. The novelty was fun at first. But what Ji is doing in his recording far exceeds the polish of Mr. Lim or the novelty of Mr. Feltsman. Even the mechanical articulation of Mr. Gould. He’s gifted us a very modern, and most authentic performance of the variations that I think should become the new standard for musical excellence.
Before reading the liner notes for this album, it was apparent to me that Ji was making this music his own, that is to say, putting his own real stamp upon it. And in so doing he was not betraying Bach. I felt this recording was somehow a “twenty-first century” interpretation, whatever that means. It was made in a modern age and it was apparent in one track to the other. Perhaps no better example exists than variation 13. Almost jazzy ornaments, rhythmic variations, and above all else, a sublime control of style that enhances and celebrates the music. Far from being a parody, these variations speak to baroque practice in modern terms: on a modern instrument, with modern idioms. All that wrapped in good taste.
Ji writes he wants to help keep classical music alive. He helps me hear these variations anew. He’s a profound technician who I believe has a profound breadth of creativity. This is one of the more exciting albums I have auditioned. Ever.
I can’t wait to see what’s next from this audacious start to Ji’s recording career. While we do wait, I intend to enjoy hearing these variations many times over.