Bach’s Goldberg Variations have played a central role in harpsichordist Pierre Hantai’s musical life since his early youth. At 28 he recorded the work for the Opus 111 label (now available on Naïve), a highly acclaimed release that stands among the work’s choice versions. Over the past 11 years Hantai evidently has rethought and refined his interpretation, as revealed in this 2003 remake. There’s greater rhythmic freedom and variety of articulation, plus a more subjective approach to ornaments and agogics, especially in the repeats (he observes all but those in Variation 15, 25, and the Aria Da Capo; the 1992 recording honors all repeats save for Variation 25). Variations previously characterized through Hantai’s seamless legato technique (Nos. 3, 6, 8, 11, 17, and 18, for example) are further enlivened by detaché finger strokes and more inflected phrasings. The latter infuse Variations 7, 10, and 16 with greater resilience and rhythmic verve than their earlier counterparts.
The American lutenist, Hopkinson Smith, began as a teenager he began to study the classical guitar and in his early 20's, he became acquainted with the lute which he started to learn by himself. He majored in musicology at Harvard and graduated with honors in 1972. In 1973, Hopkinson Smith came to Europe to devote himself to the lute in earnest. He worked in Catalonia with Emilio Pujol, a profound pedagogue in the 19th century tradition who instilled in him a sense for higher artistic values, and in Switzerland with Eugen Dombois whose sense of happy organic unity between performer, instrument and historic period has had a lasting effect on him. From the mid 1970's, he was involved in various ensemble projects including the founding of the ensemble Hespèrion XX and a ten-year collaboration with Jordi Savall. This collaboration led to important experiences in chamber music which were a creative complement to his work as a soloist.
There are many apocryphal stories in the classical-music world, but the one in which Frederick the Great challenged Bach to improvise a six-part fugue on a theme of the king's own invention is true, and The Musical Offering was, after a period of further reflection, the result. As with all the works of Bach's later years, the work is both great art and a "teaching piece," which shows everything that he thought could be done with the king's theme. The Trio Sonata based on the theme is the only major piece of chamber music from Bach's last decades in Leipzig, and that makes the work and essential cornerstone of any Bach collection. This performance, led by Neville Marriner, is both polished and lively, and very well recorded. At a "twofer" price, coupled with The Art of Fugue, it's the preferred version of the work on modern instruments.