Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
12:00 AM 15th June 2024

Classical Musical: J S Bach Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

J S Bach Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

Sarah MacDonald Piano

REGCD 568 Two CD set

Only during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns did Sarah MacDonald's desire to learn Bach's Goldberg Variations, a desire she had had since she was 12, come true. The pandemic forced many of us into periods of inactivity. MacDonald, on the other hand, dedicated time to mastering the task.

Perhaps one would not expect the church music specialist label Regent to promote Bach’s work; why would it? However, given that Sarah MacDonald is one of its artists, the team took a chance and embraced the risk, a very successful one as it turns out.

After all, MacDonald is a polymath, and anyone who has read her recent book Cathedrals, Chapels, Organs, and Choirs (which I recommend*) will know she is well-read, sedulous, and a champion of new music. She is well-known as a choir director, Cambridge organist, and first-class musician; she is now President of the Royal College of Organists.

It’s refreshing to come across a different interpretation of a major work, especially an iconic one that has been recorded many times before.

MacDonald acknowledges that playing Bach on the piano remains a controversial activity and certainly requires a rethinking of the instrument.

She argues in a compelling and fascinating set of notes that one should not simply play the piano as if it were a harpsichord, ignoring its touch-sensitive expressive facility (why not just play the harpsichord instead?).

However, one cannot simply play as if one were performing Chopin, as this would be detrimental to the music. Careful use of touch and articulation are critical. Playing with the same legato that one would use for a composition written after the invention of the modern Steinway is not appropriate.

She brings a new perspective, and her diligence has paid off. This is why her interpretation lifted the notation from the score pages and drew me into the work in ways I hadn't anticipated. MacDonald does not use the damper or sustaining pedal at all during this recording in the nave of Ely Cathedral; she maintains that Bach's keyboard music has absolutely no need for it.

The poetic flow and intricacy are all there as the music wafts around the cavernous nave; there is nowhere to hide. I enjoyed the exquisite tone and textures of the Steinway Model D, No. 545204, although I suspect some will be intransigent and not enjoy it. I don't understand why this might be the case.

MacDonald, a Canadian, has taken on a piece that her compatriot Glen Gould recorded for his debut album, a work for which he received widespread recognition.

As one would expect, MacDonald, like Gould, has paid meticulous attention to the details in preparing for the recording. The rhythmic pace and phrasing are objective in how she presents the character through lucid contrapuntal lines. Similar to the contours on a map, MacDonald has meticulously crafted her lines of engagement, highlighting various colours and styles of the aural soundscape. The breadth and depth of MacDonald’s phrasing and dynamics communicate in an engaging way. Her experience as an organist adds a different dimension; at times, there is an improvisatory feel.

MacDonald's articulation is clear, and her playing is stylish and elegant, with excellent finger work.

She writes that what 'I have done here will undoubtedly annoy some historically inclined listeners, but nonetheless, I hope that I am able to convey something of the musical intuition of the man, whom I think no one would disagree was the greatest composer of all time, in one of his most important and technically extraordinary works.'

Read the fascinating and insightful article reproduced in the booklet that was originally written for the Organists’ Review; it details MacDonald's approach to her personal project.

As I compared it to other recordings in my library, I felt that MacDonald had achieved something meaningful in what she set out to accomplish—a worthwhile recording that stirs the soul.

Regent has done a terrific job in capturing the clarity in the recording.

In fact, I am just about to board a plane and have it set to accompany me on my journey, this time listening for pleasure to a work and interpretation I know I will enjoy.

*Read my review of Sarah MacDonald's book Cathedrals Chapels Organs Choirs A Personal View By Sarah Macdonald