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GRAMOPHONE (11/2023)
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Reviewer :
 Harriet Smith


This is a bold choice for Swiss pianist Oliver Schnyder’s first foray into Bach on record. How do you like your Aria? For me, I tend to favour an underlying simplicity and a sense of flowing song, the clue being in the name, though if a musician is sufficiently persuasive, I can take other approaches. Schnyder, though, weighs down an already steady pace with an excess of ornamentation.


Things pick up in the well-paced Vars 1 and 2, but again, repeats are subject to too much frippery, while Var 4 is inclined to shoutiness, certainly compared to the recently released recording by Víkingur Ólafsson. The canonic Var 6 offers a precious glimpse of life shorn of ornamentation and sounds all the better for it (something also borne out in the unadorned Vars 8, 11 and 19, for instance). It’s not that I have anything against such additions per se, but they need to sound organic, which they don’t in Schnyder’s hands.


There are so many ways to approach the Goldbergs and, as Ólafsson has shown, you can find great personality within each variation without losing a sense of the narrative of the whole. Schnyder offers less vivid characterisation, and, as we reach Var 15, the first in a minor key, the depth of tragedy that the finest reveal – whether at the flowing tempo of Murray Perahia, the more stuttering utterance of Beatrice Rana or the emotional folding-in-on-itself of Ólafsson – is here imbued with a vague generalised sadness. And Schnyder’s French ouverture (Var 16) has a strange lurch to it, as if the rhythm underpinning it isn’t quite stable. He manages the fiendish hand-crossing of Var 20 without mishap but it sounds onerous alongside


Rana (especially once she gets to the triplets), and the contrast with the minorkey canon at the seventh – which is again subjected to too much ornamentation – passes for relatively little. The sense of build-up through Vars 23 and 24 is also underwhelming, but the strangest decision within Schnyder’s entire Goldbergs lies in Var 25, the so-called ‘Black Pearl’, which is given without repeats, underplaying its role as the tragic centre within Bach’s edifice. And, as a result, the following major-key variations lack a sense of relief.


The hugely tricky trill-laden Var 28 sounds as difficult as it is here (Ólafsson finding a great sweep through the phrases at a brisker tempo). At least the Quodlibet is suitably serious in Schnyder’s hands. The closing Aria is, ironically, less fussy than the opening one, but this Goldbergs is more of a joyless trek than a profound journey of self-realisation. For that, go buy Ólafsson.

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