Lars Vogt Below Par in the Goldberg Variations

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach: Lars Vogt (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 6.6.2016 (CC)

Goldberg Variations, BWV988

Strangely, the Wigmore booklet announces this as Bach’s “Goldberg Variations (selection)” and yet the full quota of variations was on display here. Still, this was a good performance of Bach’s masterpiece, but certainly not a great one – and actually nowhere near as convincing as Vogt’s own 2015 recording for Ondine. It was great, though, to see the Wigmore providing extensive and informed programme notes for the lunchtime recitals – courtesy, here, of Brian David.

I was rather surprised to see Vogt using music for this piece. Yet another surprising element was that Vogt began his performance pretty much straight after the welcoming applause had finished; certainly before people had had time to settle themselves. The famous Aria bode well, its ornamentation emerging as quasi-extempore. And, indeed, individual variations had distinct characterisation. But there were technical slips and even awkward passages throughout; plus rapid passages that threatened to – and in some cases actually did – run away with themselves. Neither was there the delicious variety of touch one relishes with such delight on his recording. An off day or a rethink? Surely, with the technical slips, the former. The occasional tendency to hammer out melodic lines (and not only in the Fughetta, Variation X) spoke of clumsy Bach.

The most heinous sin, though, and a natural result of what was in essence a rather pedestrian and disengaged performance, was the fact that the reappearance of the Aria at the end was completely robbed of magic. Perhaps Vogt’s finest variation was the Adagio (No. XXV); even here, though, Bach’s use of gesture (Affekt), particularly in suspensions, is more convincing in Vogt’s excellent recording. And the Romanticisation of the opening of the penultimate movement, the “Quodlibet”, was even more marked than in his recording.

My own experience of Vogt has been varied. In a generally positive review of a Wigmore recital in 2004, I referenced other reviews in which I found Vogt lacking: Brahms on disc and a live Beethoven “Emperor” with the Detroit Orchestra. This points up the contradiction of the man: the recording is really something special; this Wigmore performance, its much lesser cousin and all the more frustrating for it.

Colin Clarke


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