NOT LONG ago in this space enthusiastic welcomes were given to recordings by the young English harpsichordist and conductor Trevor Pinnock, released here on Vanguard -- his complete series of Rameau's harpsichord music on three discs, and three more on which he conducts his chamber orchestra, the English Concert, in Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," the remainder of his Op. 8 violin concertos and one concerto each for flute and cello. Pinnock is making his local area debut in a harpsichord recital at the University of Maryland Tuesday evening, and Polydor's release of his Bach recordings in its Archiv series seems happily timed to celebrate that event.
He is represented in both performing aspects. As harpsichordist he performs the "Goldberg" Variations on 2533.425 (cassette 3310.425), and as conductor he presides from the harpsichord over the English Concert's performances of the four Suites for orchestra, with Stephen Preston as flute soloist in the Suite No. 2 (2723.072, two discs; cassette 3310.175). His harpsichord is an instrument made by Andreas Ruckers in Antwerp in 1646, nearly four decades before Bach was born; Preston and all the members of the English Concert also perform on original period instruments.
Actually, the two-disc set of the Suites is a reissue, for these four sides have been available for some time in different combinations. It was a good idea to gather them together, for anyone shopping for these Suites is going to want them in a single package, and that is the way nearly all competing recordings are offered. The performances are in the "authentic" vein of those under Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the late Thurston Dart, which is to say the French overtures are extremely brisk rather than majestic, rhythms are especially strong, phrasing exceptionally emphatic. But they are more enticing than Dart's or Harnoncourt's in almost every way.
The Third Suite in particular is a joy. The melodic line in the famous Air is given to the solo violin, with discreet but effective ornamentation in the repeats. The sometimes clumsy-sounding appoggiatura in the opening phrase of the Gavotte makes its point in the heartiest, most convincing way, and the trumpets and drums are superbly balanced. In the Second Suite, the briskness of the Overture perhaps makes Pinnock's tempos for the Rondeau and Polonaise seem overdeliberate, but they are well characterized, sturdy and sensible.
Among "original instrument" recordings of the Suites, the one by the Ars Rediviva of Prague under Milan Munclinger, on Supraphon, may be a safer bet for more traditional-minded listeners, with its broad tempos in the overtures and generally more ceremonial feeling. The almost unique enlivenment of Pinnock's approach, however, combined with splendid playing and recording, makes his version well-nigh irresistible; I would think many listeners would find it so, for alternate listening if not as "only version."
Similarly enlivening, and perhaps even more striking in terms of sheer tonal beauty, is Pinnock's performance of the "Goldberg" Variations. This is the work Bach wrote for the 15-year-old Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to play to help his employer, Count Kayserling, fight insomnia, but Pinnock seem to take the quite reasonable view that any music worth playing (especially musicy by Bach) is worth staying awake for. I have never come across a more stimulating, more zestful or more downright enjoyable performance of this work. One or two variations stand out as incongruously slow, but overall the performance is a knockout.
In addition to the engaging spirit that prevades the sequence, Pinnock's brisk tempos enable him to include repeats in more than half of the 30 variations without taking up more than two very well-filled sides. This is the happiest sort of corrective to the notion of this work as a dryish formal exercise; it is the sort of playing that, without eccentricity, breathes life into the music and simply compels the listener to delight in it. I would not hesitate to put this at the very top of the list of available recordings of the "Goldberg" Variations, and I would not think of doing without it, no matter how many other versions I might have in my collection already.