© Siebe Riedstra, July 2009
Bach: Goldberg-Variations BWV 988.
Martin Schmeding (Gottfried Silbermann-organ, Hofkirche Dresden).
Cybele SACD 030.802 · 75' · (sacd)
Ever since the release of the motion picture Silence of the lambs, the Goldberg Variations must be considered by millions as the most famous piece that Bach composed for the piano. Bach did not write them for that instrument, but the number of pianists that have recorded them exceeds by far the performances made on the double keyboard cembalo, the instrument of Bach’s choice.
It seems logical that another multiple keyboard instrument, the organ, would be a natural second choice for performances of Bach’s masterpiece. After all, the Goldbergs were his only set of variations for the cembalo, but he produced several for the organ, including the variations on Vom Himmel hoch - orchestrated by Igor Stravinsky - and multiple Choral partitas.
However, performances of the Goldberg on the organ have been few and in between. Jean Guillou and Käthe von Tricht spring to mind, but critical response has not been friendly. The stolid tone of the organ is blamed, but that is of course an argument that is only valid after listening to the shadings made possible by the modern concert grand. The cembalo certainly does not allow for dynamic niceties.
What does matter are the acoustics. When young Goldberg played these pieces to put his master to sleep there was no reverberation time. Organs are found in churches, not antechambers, and accordingly one has to put up with a lot of echo – in this case at least five seconds.
That brings us to this recording, made in the Hofkirche Dresden, on one of the most beautiful pipe organs ever made. Gottfried Silbermann, much admired by J.S.Bach, constructed it in 1755. It miraculously survived World War 2 and was restored to its former glory in 2002. This recording makes a glorious showcase to the many colors that it yields.
Martin Schmeding has decided to make this a performance in a grand manner. Organ, space and score work together in an experience that is reminiscent of Clavierübung III. To make this an exiting trip into the insides of instrument and composition, detailed comments and registrations are provided in the booklet. Given the five seconds reverberation time, this is not for the fainthearted, but organ aficionados should relish in the infinite shadings of Silbermann’s masterful creation, Cybele’s great sound and Schmeding’s marvelous musicianship.