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Classical Album of the Week: Lang Lang Plays Bach's Goldberg Variations

We’ve been waiting for this one! For his new DG release, star pianist Lang Lang has tackled a major work by J.S. Bach for the first time. Yes, he has recorded short samples for a few collections, but never anything like Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations.

Lang Lang claims that the work has fascinated him for twenty years, and is the realization of a life-long dream. He was seventeen when he first played the work, for Christoph Eschenbach, but he wouldn’t attempt it again until now, after many years of immersing himself in the score.

Although generally associated with the large virtuoso repertoire of the 19th and 20th centuries, Lang Lang does perform and record classical repertoire, like Mozart and Beethoven, but the Goldberg Variations finds his strong musical personality in unfamiliar territory.

It is no surprise that his performances are highly embellished, but Lang Lang is hardly the only pianist to have made the Goldbergs his own; Glenn Gould’s pioneering 1955 recording become the stuff of legend (and he took some wild liberties with the score), but András Schiff, Daniel Barenboim, Murray Perahia and many others have put their individual stamp on this work, so let’s keep an open mind.

There are some unusual tempo choices, and Lang Lang’s embellishments are sometimes better suited to late Romantic music, but there is a lovely singing quality in these performances, pleasing tone, transparency, and a dose of showmanship, not altogether unwelcome in a work as challenging as the Goldberg Variations.

Gregg was the host of WRTI's morning drive show from 2012 until his retirement from WRTI in January, 2021. He began producing and hosting The Philadelphia Orchestra In Concert broadcasts in 2013, joining the Orchestra in Hong Kong for the first-ever live international radio broadcasts from that island in 2016, and in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for two historic broadcasts in 2018. You can still hear Gregg as host of the Orchestra broadcasts every Sunday and Monday on WRTI.