In the decades since Glenn Gould’s revolutionary 1955 recording, Bach’s Goldberg Variations have gone from an esoteric object of specialist interest to a ubiquitous rite of passage. Pianists today seemingly take on this monumental set of keyboard variations for the same reason George Mallory professed that he climbed Mount Everest: because it’s there.
But in a crowded field, the intelligent French pianist Alexandre Tharaud stands out. He has something to say in this music, and in an engrossing Washington Performing Arts recital on Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, Tharaud offered a set of Goldbergs on a remarkably intimate and human scale.
In Tharaud’s hands, the work was less an Olympian achievement than a highly personal musical exploration, full of character and spontaneity. Each variation bristled with individuality: the undercurrent of vulnerability in Variation 6; the dreamy lyricism of Variation 13; the playfulness that gently ironized the majesty of the French overture; and the joyous trills and pointillist effects of Variation 28.
Performing with the score and observing most repeats, the Frenchman used the full resources of the modern piano, bringing ever-so-delicate shadings to his soft playing, but without ever sacrificing clarity or the rhythmic spirit of baroque dance. His voicing and articulation were delightfully varied, and his use of embellishments was imbued with a delectable spirit of improvisation.
Inevitably, there was some flagging of energy and technical slips in the second half of the 75-minute recital. Tharaud also had the frustrating tendency to rush the basic pulse of a movement, robbing the minor key Variation 15, for instance, of its gravitas.
Yet Tharaud’s fallibility only seemed to reinforce the inexhaustible humanity of the Goldbergs. His was an act of interpretation that paradoxically opened up, rather than foreclosed, a sense of possibility. When, after 30 variations, the Aria returned at the evening’s end — caressing in its tenderness, nostalgic in its reach, hopeful in its gentle declarations — it was as if the entire world had been transformed without us knowing it. And in the long silence that was held miraculously after the final note, the audience was left to contemplate all that was, and is, to come.