May 2003

Joanna Kong - Bach: Goldberg Variations / Beethoven: Diabelli Variations
Brioso Recordings CD BR133, two CDs
Released: 2003

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ***1/2 *
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2 *

It takes an artist with a great deal of self-confidence, not to mention talent, to undertake recording another version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Joanna Kong’s recording of the work on harpsichord helps to give it a more historically accurate perspective, and her ability at the keyboard offers reason for contemplating its addition to your collection. As an added bonus, Kong also includes Beethoven's Diabelli Variations on piano. So we are presented with the works of two masters, each demonstrating their talent for improvisation, as played by an artist of real sensitivity.

Considering the amount of musicianship Bach included in the Goldberg Variations, it constantly amazes me that this music was written to aid in banishing the insomnia of Count Kayselring. Perhaps it was the harpsichord's limited dynamic palette that allowed this wondrous music’s use simply as a sleeping tonic. For in the hands of a talented artist this music becomes far more enjoyable than its use as mere background. These variations many have been written as lullabies, but they’re not played that way here.

Ms. Kong demonstrates enormous improvisational ability in rendering these variations in such a way as to prevent them becoming too similar, and thus boring. Here, whether taken in bite-sized bits or as an entire meal, she transforms her version into an interesting and attention-grabbing performance. She uses subtle harmonic twists -- due to its construction, the harpsichord is incapable of large dynamic swings -- to catch one's ear and hold it over the course of the disc, varying both the music and her playing accordingly.

Her Diabelli Variations snuck up on me. I’d been so wrapped up in Ms. Kong’s Goldberg Variations that I failed to contemplate just how interesting she would render this work. I always found the piano to be an almost-perfect instrument for the passion and feeling Beethoven included in his compositions. The dynamic swings available via the piano (remember, it’s a percussive instrument), as opposed to the harpsichord’s delicacy, combine with Beethoven’s creative writing to craft a powerful and inventive piece of music. And when you add Ms. Kong’s ability to play this music with the appropriate touch and feeling, there is much to savor here.

Yet, without adequate effort being given to the sonic aspect, much of the interpretive differences would be for naught. Fortunately, Brisco Recordings recognizes those harmonic differences, and has recorded those on this CD set in an appropriate manner. The harpsichord is presented as the delicately plucked instrument it is, rendered clearly enough to make the tonal shadings readily apparent. The piano, on the other hand, is recorded so that you can easily hear all of its percussive power and dynamic swing. You can almost hear the hammers striking strings. And, in either recording, you can get a sense of Ms. Kong’s fingers dancing across the keyboards. Both instruments sound a bit set back on the stage -- more 15th row than front- row seating.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Joanna Kong’s rendition of the Goldberg Variations. The subtle wit, charm, and inventiveness she brings to this work allow it to move beyond their status as mere lullabies and into the realm of pleasurable musical interludes to be savored over and over. The added value bonus of the beautifully rendered Diabelli Variations compounds the enjoyment factor. If you’re looking for an alternative to the Gould recordings, this one should head toward the top of your audition list. I know I’ll be listening again.