Goldberg Variations Reviews
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Selected reviews

"As the founder of the New York City early music group ARTEK, Gwendolyn Toth has certainly tackled tough music, but the Goldberg Variations are probably her Everest. Hardly anything like them exists in the Baroque. Variation 25, with its smooth chromaticism, is the Tristan and Isolde of the Baroque, and the unsteady measures tipping between duple and triple meter, also in Variation 25, are prescient of Chopin. The nine canons, increasing their intervallic relationships by whole steps, exhibit the convoluted fugal manipulations that the Baroque engendered. While it's not certain that Bach composed the variations for lautenwerk (lute-harpsichord), he could have – he owned two of them. Such instruments, called by different names, existed in all countries during the Baroque, though Germany seems to be where they were most popular. On Toth's 1988 Willard Martin lautenwerk, the roaring bass lines in variations 3 and 26, which Toth's nimble fingers roll over with barely a respite, thunder all the more. The crazy hand crossings in variations 5 and 20, the wide separation between musical lines in variations 11 and 17, the arpeggiated mordents that Bach integrated into the music's fabric (variation 14), and the musically sensitive cadences and ornaments (including her own, harmonized appoggiaturas in variation 26) show off Toth's excellent ability." (Gary Freeman, Early Music America magazine, Summer 2004)

 

"Another Goldbergs some will say. It is true, indeed, that some major works are recorded so often that one sometimes wonders what real justification – aside from commerical ones – there may be for adding yet another version to an already large catalog. In the present case, however, the justification appears clear: it lies in the choice of the instrument used. Gwendolyn Toth plays a rather unusual instrument, the Lautenwerck…The sonorities are, it is true, nice and pleasant, peaceful almost, less hash than a harpsichord may be at times, yet different from those of a clavichord where the string is hit and not plucked. This naturally leads the performer to play in a quiet and serene way…this version is an interesting invitation to a rediscovery o fhte 30 famous Goldberg Variations (which make up the fourth part of the Clavierubung) through an unusual sound experience. The lasting resonance of the bass notes adds a poetic veil of mystery to the otherwise clear polyphony…Gwendolyn Toth makes good use of all the possible combinations between the two keyboards and different stops – the overall impression is that of a confident, albeit intimate cruise across a rather even territory…tastefully played on an interesting instrument." (Pierre Dubois, Fanfare Magazine, March/April 2004)

 

"The lute-harpsichord (lautenwerk) has emerged from obscurity in the last few years and there have been a few new releases using this extraordinary instrument. Basically a lautenwerk is a harpsichord with gut instead of metal strings and sounds often like a lute or harp. I tend to snatch up any CD I see using this instrument because of its unusual sound and rare appearance on recordings. Gwendolyn Toth's performance of the Goldberg Variations on lautenwerk is a revelation. Bach himself owned two of these instruments so not only is this performance musically sublime but it is also historically exciting. The natural sustain of the strings with no dampers creates a whirl of sound that gives the Goldberg Variations a sweeping, lush sound that makes for delightful listening. The Goldberg Variations have been played on nearly every instrument, from harpsichord to piano to guitar to string trio. This extraordinarily beautiful performance on lautenwerk is an important and exciting addition to the large catalog of recordings of this work. A triumph!" (Jan Hanford, www.jsbach.org)

 

"Pure Enjoyment…You might be wondering just what type of instrument is a lautenwerk. Well, it sounds a little like a harpsichord but is much warmer/rounder in tone with a shorter decay time. It's probably best to think of it as a harpsichord with gut strings or as a cross between a lute and harpsichord. One aspect is clear through the listening process; the lautenwerk is an intimate instrument and therefore bears a similarity to the clavichord. The highly esteemed early music specialist Robert Hill used a lautenwerk for some of his Bach performances as part of Hänssler's Bach Anniversary series a few years ago, and the instrument has an inherently enticing and lovely tone. Also, there is ample justification for using the lautenwerk for a Bach keyboard work in that Bach's estate reveals that he had two of them in his home. Some folks do have reservations about the lautenwerk, and they revolve around the premise that this intimate way of making music is not conducive for powerfully demonstrative compositions. There is certainly validity to the reservations, but we need to remember that the environment's acoustics and the approach of the artist are the most important aspects determining the worth of a performance. The lautenwerk constructed by Willard Martin has an 8-foot gut with two plucking positions, 4-foot brass, two manuals with handstops, and a pitch of A=370. Be assured that this particular lautenwerk has a lovely tone of sublime intimacy which offers performers an excellent opportunity to provide listeners with a distinctive and compelling set of interpretations. As for Gwendolyn Toth, she is one of the leaders in America's Early Music Movement. A graduate of Yale University, Toth has been an academic teacher at Yale, Mount Holyoke College, Barnard College, and the Mannes College of Music. Presently, she teaches harpsichord at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Toth has performed on all the different types of keyboard instruments in use during the Baroque period and employs the principles of fingering, articulation, and phrasing associated with accurate historical performance styles. In addition to concertizing throughout most of the world, Toth is the director and founder of New York City's virtuoso period instrument ensemble ARTEK which has recorded Monteverdi's Orfeo on the Lyrichord Early Music Series label….Toth's recording conveys ample offsets. First, the use of a lautenwerk for the Goldbergs is infrequent, and Toth knows expertly how to keep making the music sounding fresh. Second, there is a dignity and elegance to her readings that are quite irresistible. Third, even when Toth possesses a rigid rhythmic flow, she manages to make it sound more distinctive than restrictive. Most important, Toth clearly conveys her joy of being intimate with Bach's music; this isn't an ostentatious display, but one that radiates with confidence and warmth. Starting with the Aria, Toth gives us a high level of poise and poetry over a foundation of optimism. Her rhythmic flow and inner joy permeate her performances of the 1st, 2nd , and 4th Variations, and I consider the interpretations among the best on record. Other noteworthy performances include the 6th Variation where Toth brings out the unique qualities of the lautenwerk with an exquisitely delicate reading highlighted by a deliciously woody soprano part that is thoroughly enjoyable. Although delicate, Toth pushes the music forward with a compelling sense of drive and gives us a 'one of a kind' performance. The 12 th Variation is an uplifting and joyous affair, and Toth's optimism radiates with brilliance. In the 15th Variation, we meet Toth's mechanical rhythms I mentioned earlier. Yes, it can sound rather perfunctory and clipped in the manner of a wind-up doll, but she applies a very attractive bounce and urgency to the beat that overcomes the rigidity. In the 16 th Variation Overture, Toth appeals with her regal rhythms and strong accenting, handling the double-dotted French style most convincingly. The 21st Variation, "Canone allasettima", is my favorite in the set with its bitter-sweet refrains and a wonderful outpouring of hope in the 2nd Section. Toth again takes the mechanical rhythmic approach and constricts the music. But I still love her interpretation; it perfectly captures the contrasting moods, and her beat is intoxicating yet quite lively. This is one of the most rewarding and distinctive versions I have come across. The upbeat Variations 22 thru 24 find Toth possessing an 'inner glow' that permeates this listener's bloodstream...The remaining variations go splendidly as Toth continues to highlight the joy of life in Bach's music. (Donald Satz, www.bach-cantatas.com)

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