Pietro De Maria’s Up And Down Goldberg Variations

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

It’s a cliché to lead off a review with the phrase “and still they come”. Yet given the seemingly endless parade of Bach Goldberg Variations recordings on the piano, what else can I say? Be that as it may, the strong personality and convincing pianistic orientation characterizing Pietro De Maria’s complete Well-Tempered Clavier for Decca made me curious about his Goldbergs release.

The pianist’s tempo fluctuations in the Aria impart an intimate, flexible quality that befits the music more than some of the solemn, overly reverential readings we often hear (Simone Dinnerstein, for example). As the variations unfold, it becomes apparent that De Maria does not link or interrelate them via unified tempo relationships in the manner of Glenn Gould, Murray Perahia, or András Schiff. Instead, he treats each variation as an entity in itself.

Variation 1, for example, verges on the strident, while by contrast No. 2’s contrapuntal lines are distinctly differentiated and rhythmically focused. No. 3 conveys strong contrasts between legato and detached phrasings, although De Maria makes little of No. 4’s cross-rhythmic implications. His moderate tempo for No. 5 allows for inventive ornamentation on the repeats.

No. 7’s measured Siciliano tempo is compromised by De Maria’s rigidly executed dotted rhythms, while the No. 10 Fughetta is crisp and ebullient, if a little lightweight and lacking in gravitas. No. 13’s Chopinesque ritards may not be the most stylish, yet they’re brought off with taste. No. 14’s Scarlatti-like runs and trills somehow don’t take wing compared to Perahia’s more centered articulation, but the minor-key No. 15’s canonic lines interweave with songful give and take. Similarly, the celebrated “Black Pearl” No. 25 (also in minor) is a lovely animated aria rather than an austere dirge.

No. 18 (the canon at the sixth) is too held back and clipped for my taste, whereas No. 20’s scurrying triplets and leaping counter lines emerge in impressively controlled alignment. De Maria keeps No. 28’s trills in the background while bringing the outer lines to the fore. He pulls out the toccata-like No. 29’s virtuoso stops at full force, only to dissipate the momentum with a low-keyed Quodlibet (No. 30).

In a nutshell, the levels of energy and concentration vary throughout De Maria’s performance, notwithstanding its felicitous details. By contrast, Maria Perrotta’s recent Decca Goldbergs recording is less pianistically striking yet more fluid and musically engaging. The engineering here is a bit dry, yet clear and full bodied, with a slightly brittle “ping” to the high register in loudest moments.

For the record, De Maria observes all repeats, including the increasingly fashionable (and arguably superfluous) one in the Aria da Capo. No doubt that collectors who tend to amass multiple Goldberg Variations recordings (and I’m guilty as charged!) will want to hear De Maria. However, for recent piano versions with full repeats that hold their own alongside the Perahia reference, you can’t do better than Alexandre Tharaud, Beatrice Rana, and Lori Sims. I doubt that Decca will release De Maria’s Goldbergs in the U.S., but it’s easily available from European online retailers.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Perahia (Sony); Dershavina (Oehms Classics); Gould (Sony); Schiff (Decca)

  • Pietro De Maria (piano)

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