by Chris Bertram on May 22, 2020

One thing I’ve found a bit more time to do under lockdown is to listen to more music, and on the back of reading Richard Powers’s The Gold Bug Variations, I’ve been listening to different recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations every day. Very calming and sometimes transporting. The trouble is, though, that as someone who likes music, who has read quite a bit about it, who goes to the occasional concert, I am also somewhat unmusical. My attempts in middle-age to learn the piano were not crowned with success and my elderly teacher was really quite vocal in his denunciations of my incompetence. (A welcome side-effect though was that my children have managed to become musicians.) So how, among the bewildering variety of performances on different instruments – all of which are available at the click of a mouse – to pick what is “good” to listen to? How far do you trust the experts and their recommendations? And what if you find yourself liking things that the musically competent condemn and disliking things that they praise as exsquisite. Such are the anxieties of the aesthetic inadequate faced with art and the judgement of the acknowledged cognoscenti.

So what have my listenings prompted so far by way of inexpert conclusions? First, that I am pretty allergic to the sound of the harpsichord — something I knew already — though I accept that you sometimes hear things in the music that you don’t when listening to a piano performace. Second, that neither of the celebrated performances by Glenn Gould really do it for me: the first sounds too dry, in the second I find the humming too distracting. Third, that there is an extraordinary degree of variation in the playing, such that it can seem like different pieces of music are being performed (most obviously in something like Wilhelm Kempff’s ornamentless performance of the Aria as contrasted with most others). Finally, that it turned out to be really important to me how a particular variation (XIII) is performed. Some of the renditions are extraordinarily soulful and affecting and some seem like technical exercises that lack such meaning. For what its worth, I’ve most enjoyed performances by Tatiana Nicolaeva (a concert in Stockholm), by Murray Perahia, and by Maria Tipo. I have on LP or CD the 1955 Gould, a Rosalyn Tureck and the Charles Rosen, but I haven’t revisited the last two yet. What do Crooked Timber readers suggest?