It takes a brave pianist these days (in the heat of the original-instruments craze) to haul out that ultimate compendium of baroque keyboard style, Bach's "Goldberg" Variations, and put it through its paces on a modern concert grand. Daniel Barenboim (a man who is something of a compendium himself, regularly alternating between instrumental and conductorial duties and covering virtually every corner of the repertory) did just that Monday evening at the Kennedy Center.
Barenboim is nothing if not brave, and brought to the 80-minute reading the authority one has come to expect in his music making. The slow, beautifully shaped playing of the work's opening aria -- here dripping wet with pedal -- set the scene for what might have been something wonderful, reminding the audience why Bach played on the piano can be so special.
But the pedal continued to flow unabated throughout the 30 ensuing variations, muddying textures often beyond recognition, making Bach's intricate, complicated constructions more difficult to hear. Perverse kinds of articulation (the fugal 10th variation's theme, for instance, featured organ-style measured separations between the notes) often began pieces, only to dwindle mysteriously away by the time a third voice entered.
Never known as a pianistic colorist, Barenboim waded along with the same bland sound from variation to variation. One could have been satisfied nonetheless to follow so much music in the key of G if he had brought some of his fabled architectural prowess to this massive string of variations, ennobling it with some grand plan. Instead, he relied either on brute force (in the louder, faster ones) or a sort of whispering reticence, both employed in an annoying, seemingly random way.