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Issue 59
This article was last updated on
13 February, 2001

More Stuff:

The Goldberg Variations An Inktroduction


Piano Versions:

Mia Chung (Channel)

Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)

Evgeni Koroliov (Hänssler).


Harpsichord Versions:
Pierre Hantaď (Opus 111)


Other Versions:
Kurt Rodarmer - arr. guitars. (Sony/Pangaea).

Jozsef Eötvös - arr. solo guitar (indepen.).


Goldberg Variations Maniacs Homepage

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

The Goldberg Variations
BWV 988, Clavierübung IV (1741)

transcribed for and performed on solo guitar by

(Independent production) EJ-01WZ
Click here for more details
[62:48] full-price

by Chia Han-Leon

This admirable and beautiful effort by Hungarian guitarist József Eötvös (b.1962) is an essential investment for any Goldberg Variations fan, or Bach worshipper. Not only is the music faithfully (I think almost religiously) transcribed, but the playing is of a very high order, extremely natural, inspiringly beautiful.

NEW!! Chopin for Guitar!
József Eötvös has released his latest CD of transcriptions, made by himself, of Chopin's piano works. Included are the Nocturne Op.9 No2, the Polonaise Op.40 No.1, the Etude Op.10 No.3, the Feuille d'Album, and more! Click here for more details!

Are you a CD distributor?
If yes - give these discs a try. Proper and widespread distribution of these albums are not available, but their merits are many and compelling.

If you live in Berkeley, California, this CD is available from The Musical Offering - Classical Record Shop & Café

Recall my review of Kurt Rodarmer's multiple-guitar transcription (but played alone, then mixed) of the Goldberg in an earlier review - in that version, it can be said that Rodarmer is doing his best to physically capture as much of the original keyboard music. Given, as Rodarmer points out, the difficulty of playing a 10-fingered keyboard work on a guitar with only one hand, it is already quite a thing to transcribe the entire Goldberg for that instrument.

But here, forced or inspired by the music, Eötvös' transcription distills the purest essence of Bach and the Goldberg into a transciption for solo guitar. And truly, I must say, the result is a work of high art that not only does complete justice to but utterly refreshes the music; it is a glorious effort worthy of the name of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach monogram Eötvös' sense of the musical Bach line (here comes my interpretation, Yeuk Fan) is very very satisfying, clear but never rigid or monochrome. Let us say that the result you will hear on this disc is the so-many lines of the keyboard original distilled into the lesser (in number) lines of the guitar. The music becomes more essentialised, purer, more concentrated because of this. Not that the original is in any way excessive, but the solo guitar version is, as presented here, like a poetic synopsis. From each line, the transcriber must select the most "essential" bits and reform them to recreate the music, but with less overall material.

It is like, if Bach used four colours to paint a picture, now Eötvös repaints the same picture with two colours. In theory, if a picture is done with only two colours, the difference between the two is the line between one colour and the other. This, expressed in music, may perhaps be a crude visual expression of the Bach line. It is not a thin black "line" per se, but the interaction of a number of lines/colours to create a singular picture. Bach is of course not the only composer who could write beautiful lines, but he is also one of the most intricate and inspiring, like Baroque architecture.

If you can thus distil the line, and still make the transcription beautiful and faithful to the original, then the essence of the Bach line has been successfully captured in greater concision (given that Bach is already quite concise!). What more can I say for Mr Eötvös except that the Goldberg Variations as he has transcribed and performed here make the music sound like it was originally written for guitar rather than the keyboard? Using less colours, he seems to have actually made the picture even more beautiful.

J.S. Bach After the heavenly Aria, listen to the joyous pace of Variation 1 (still my favourite), with its natural flow. There is not a hint of rush, and an ample ring of sunny cheer and breezy delight, making one want to get up and dance. From his gorgeous instrument, Eötvös extracts a beautiful interplay of the upper and lower lines, combined with the phrasal nuances, colours and nudges that mark the great guitarists. The hands (and fingers!) often seem to dance with each other - try Variation 3 - an effect much clearer on a single guitar.

There is a seamless movement of moods as each track/Variation flows into the next with only brief breathers. This arrangment, potentially tiring to the listener or 'live' performer, only highlights the organic flow of the Variations as they meld into each other like clouds taking on different shapes. Even within Variation 16 (the "overture"), the break between the two sections is achieved without any sign of interruption. Or try Eötvös' gear-shift between Variations 19 and 20 - faultless. Most of the music has a sunny character, but when placed alongside the moody variations (say 15 and 21, both canons), the contrast can be very stark. Eötvös, Artistic Director of the International Guitar Festival of Esztergom (Hungary), brings out the melancholy impressively.

While listening through the entire CD without touching any buttons, I found the unity of Eötvös' Goldberg to be entirely mesmerizing. Later, as I started to review in detail, skipping tracks here and there, this became much less obvious. Point: if you want to appreciate the art of Bach and Eötvös, let them paint the full picture without interruption.

József Eötvös József Eötvös (left) plays with a casual elegance which never indulges in empty effect, as in Variations 3, 5 and 19, so appealing in their grace of sound and flow. The ease and familiarity of his playing extends even to the trills - often sounding more awkward on guitar than keyboard, Eötvös' delivers these without breaking the fluidity of the phrases (try Variation 10).

Variations 9 and 17 are fine examples of the Bach line in action - listen to how Eötvös makes you follow the line, alternating between upper, middle and lower registers - this is how one would sing the Bach line. You do not merely follow, say, the soprano line, but alternate between whichever line is dominant or most essential in order to, with one voice, sing the whole tune. In this way, the line is not continuous nor linear, and yet, despite its broken, complex appearance, is traceable as a single line in its musical manifestation.

Essence is the constant gene which lives in every Variation, no matter how each one looks or sounds like. I found Eötvös' reading of Variation 12 very heartening in the way he brings this vital personality of the Aria from within the Variation. It sort of "reappears" in the Variation, hinted here and there. It is like seeing the father in the son.

With a burst of light in Variation 14, the music is relaunched in Eötvös' singing, scintillating guitar tone. I can't begin to describe the number of ways he can change his guitar's tone-colours - first it is sunny, then half-serious, half-mystifying, then full of innocent awe.

J.S. Bach The recording is natural and has just the right amount of bloom to capture the reverberating guitar strings without obscuring the melodic patterns. Expect also to hear Eötvös' sharp intakes of breaths (a good sign, mind you). The brief notes deserve to be improved to make this album even better.

The final variation, the "quodlibet", has an expectant ring to it, half a sense of satisfaction, half of finality. When it ends, it is only the beginning again as the Aria returns. I think Rodarmer captures more of the spirit of unwilling departure and sadness, but like him, Eötvös captures the sense of a great journey completed. But perhaps this is something already essentialised in the music. The great, human Aria is the beginning and the end of the Goldberg Variations, and this is the ultimate expression of the Bach line: a circle - perfect beauty that never ends.

This disc can be ordered on-line from this József Eötvös webpage featuring an introduction to this recording. International distribution of this disc is not readily available; and yet this is a superb disc that deserves great exposure - readers and Goldberg fans, support it; distributors - help the man!

If you are in Berkeley, California, this CD is available from The Musical Offering - Classical Record Shop & Café (2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94704 - visit the website for more contact details)

CHIA HAN-LEON is looking for a cheap theorbo or archlute. He plans to learn a few troubadour songs and go around serenading until the dark ages come back.


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258: 16.8.1998 © Chia Han-Leon

Readers' Comments

From: alex ( / Wednesday, November 10, 1999 at 22:25:52)

glad to see a review recognizing Joszef Eotvos' supreme effort, i have the cd and listen to it often, and from time to time, i would attempt to play variation 1 on my guitar. i was looking for the inkpot archives for a review of his concert but did not find any, was wondering whether there was one, there should be one if what i read on the goldberg variations maniacs' homepage is true. i had the fortune of attending Mr. Eotvos' meeting with singapore's guitar fraternity, watch him play up close and even try out his guitar. it was truely an unforgettable experience

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