Lang Lang at Thomaskirche, Leipzig 2020
Lang Lang at Thomaskirche, Leipzig 2020 © Stefan Hoederath

It seems to be open season for recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. There have been new recordings recently on the piano and harpsichord, a re-release of Glenn Gould’s classic Bach, and even a version arranged for solo harp.

None of the others are likely to garner the attention that Lang Lang’s recording will. Having made his name playing high-velocity, knuckle-busting virtuoso works, often in mega halls (like his solo piano recital at the BBC Proms in 2008), the star Chinese pianist is facing a very different challenge, both for himself and his audiences, with the Goldberg Variations.

Album cover of ‘Bach: Goldberg Variations’ by Lang Lang

There are two performances on this four-CD set. One was made in the studio, the other in the historic St Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach lived and worked for a quarter of a century. They are different, as he says, but both sound more like Lang Lang than anybody else.

By and large, the studio recording is the more mellow of the two. So far from rattling through the variations to show off his speed, Lang Lang takes his time. He probes emotion deeply in the opening aria, pulling the music rather out of shape in the process, and that heralds a performance that puts feeling before virtuosity. His playing of Bach’s intricate part-writing is clean and controlled, but sometimes heavy-handed.

He has named Glenn Gould’s recording as his first inspiration and it is ironic that Gould comes across as the fleet, whistle-stop technician of the two. Lang Lang’s more thoughtful Bach is very much his own.


Bach: Goldberg Variations’ is released by DG

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A touching note on a Canadian piano master / From Killian O’Donnell, Cashel, County Galway, Ireland

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