CD review: Alexandre Tharaud’s Goldberg Variations

First published in the Guardian on 22 October, 2015

Recording Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a hefty milestone for any keyboard player, like an actor braving a new take on Hamlet or Lear or Antigone. French pianist Alexandre Tharaud doesn’t try to wow us with anything flashy but has clearly given extensive thought to every single note. The opening Aria is deliberate, considered, borderline slow. There are fastidiously shaped contours in every variation, which gets a bit precious in the fastest ones, but the overall flow works. Tharaud has a great sense of broad pace even if he gets bogged down in one or two details. He conceives the whole piece like a drama that sucks us in and doesn’t let go, and carefully paints vivid character along the way: a chunky ho-down in Variation 4, hushed intimacy in Variation 13; pompous majesty in Variation 16, super-sweet delicacy with polite triple-time swing in Variation 24. The final Aria is serene and simple, unexpectedly turning the whole tale inwards for a nifty coup de théâtre.