Bach Goldberg Variations (released 2011)

BBC Music Magazine, December 2011

5 stars

.... Daniel-Ben Pienaar, whose new account of the Variations is as different as can be - yet without ever sounding contrived or perverse. From the outset, you sense he means to get a move on, and that is confirmed by the rest of the disc. He mainly eschews repeats. When it comes to the two highly expressive variations, No 15 and 25, he still doesn't linger, though the speed at which he plays many of the others makes these two seem slower than they are. Simply put, he makes the Goldbergs sound more like that other supreme set of piano variations, Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, than any other pianist has. Several of these Goldbergs had me smiling, and a few made me laugh, but what's funny is the exuberance and playful wit of the music, not the naughty way in which it is played.
Any notion that there may be a definitive account of these variations is absurd, but whatever else, this new recording is indispensable for anyone who loves the work. And it comes with attractive fillers.

- Michael Tanner

Dallas Morning News, 13 December 2011

Anybody who loves Bach on the piano should definitely listen to this new release. Pienaar makes it clear that he is challenging himself to make the Goldbergs palatable for a general audience listening straight through this massive work. He takes the repeats he deems essential. But generally he aims for impetus, to sustain interest, and virtuosity, to entertain and excite - and succeeds magnificently on both (sic) counts.

- Lawson Taitte

Diapason (France), December 2011

5 diapasons

He plays the Goldbergs at full speed, for the most part without repeats, the articulation clipped, the polyphony intensely chiselled; he loves the music of Gibbons to the point of recording it on the piano, and has published irreverent Mozart. Who does that remind you of? Wrong answer.

Daniel-Ben Pienaar, South African pianist, writes in a clever liner note: "Do we need what we think we know about the shape of the work to be pointed out again by a performer or do we want to be made aware of new shapes, shapes of the performer’s invention even?" Further on, he defies those partial to a formalistic Bach: "This kind of listening side-steps true involvement with the great variety of idiosyncratically characterised, colourful, dramatically and oratorically compelling elements, the curious admixture of adamantine intelligence and sensuous charm.... classifying Bach as 'geometric/mathematical'  is a gross simplification." Agreed....

The variety here is seen at every turn and proliferates both between variations (by sudden metamorphosis rather than gradually) and, internally, in ideas: little motifs emerge unexpectedly and then multiply in imitative play; there are small rhetorical hesitations, agogic accents, impatient lightness of hand (micro-rubato more familiar with harpsichordists)....

The great élan and mastery of this interpreter gives unity to this fragmentary work. It is difficult not to be captivated by playing so intensely active, sometimes astonishingly so (a speed record for Var. 20 at 0'44 despite its hand crossings - and without flaws)....

His bio announces his upcoming Diabellis. Promising!

- Gaetan Naulleau (translated from original French)

Auditorium (Korea), March 2012

Critics' Choice

'Similar, but not similar', Daniel-Ben Pienaar's pianism is like this old paradox.  Here we remember him from the albums with trumpet player Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (Linn), but his adventurous interpretation of the Mozart Piano Sonatas (Avie) got favourable reviews, and going further back, his reading of the Bach Well-tempered Clavier (in 2003) was even more unprecedented. His touch was crystal-clear and classically restrained, but the texture was a far cry from a light sonority, full of intense density. Unfortunately, after the disappearance of the British label Prometheus, this Bach performance is available only on-line now (Magnatune).

Basically, his interpretation of Goldberg Variations is similar to the WTC. Someone described it as 'splashes of color like playing the clavichord'; I think this is up to a point apt with regard to Pienaar's playing. He never makes a haze of lucid details in fast passages. It seems as if he wants to bring out the tempo and intonation of the harpsichord without losing some of the piano's weight. For some examples, I'd like to point to the 21st variation where he plays a unique lament in the bass register; a trick of rhythm with a delicate agogic at the 10th variation (Fughetta in four parts); and his playing of high virtuosity for the 11th variation's trills in toccata style without being too energetic or over-using of rubato.

His playing may not be to everybody's taste if you expect 'a music... which, like Baudelaire’s lovers, is borne on the winds, light and unfettered' (Bruno Monsaingeon). For example, his rapid runs with hands crossed as in the 5th, 28th, 29th variations are almost too accurate and too intimately connected to each other, so that it almost sounds like listening to virtuosic etudes. And the 25th variation, which Wanda Landowska described as a 'black pearl', is full of intense silence, quite far removed from dense romanticism.... On the other hand, I think Pienaar daringly rejects 'a beautiful performance' in favour of 'a highly individual performance'. If Glenn Gould 'anti-harpsichordized' the Goldberg Variations, Pienaar indicates the opposite. His performance might not be your 'absolute choice', but is certainly worth adding to your collection: I recommend readers to listen to this performance at least once. Additionally, the liner note which opens with a quotation from Calvino is very interesting, full of literary sparkle.

American Record Guide March/April 2012

Pienaar is a free-spirited virtuoso pianist. He has a lovely way of delaying and softening the attack to make the music sound as if it is "on the tip of the tongue". The two bonus tracks, 14 Canons BWV1087, and the song 'Bist du bei mir' are a treat. In the canons Pienaar opens his sound to create a worldly sensuousness and lyricism. His sense of humour and irony also shine through in the canons. 'Bist du bei mir' serves as a fine vehicle for the pianist to show off just how vocally he can play a melody.

- Benjamin Katz



New England Public Radio 21 March 2012

Have We Got A Goldberg For You!

Have you ever popped a new CD into the player, intending just to check out the first track or so — then ended up listening until the very end?  Me too.  In fact, it happened on Tuesday afternoon, as I was choosing a performance of the Goldberg Variations to include on WFCR's classical show for Wednesday, Bach's birthday. many keyboard artists have felt both attracted to and intimidated by the Goldbergs. (Such as pianist Jeremy Denk, who is saying as much in his recent  blog posts for NPR).  I mean, not only is the work itself one of the most daunting musical and intellectual challenges presented to any performer.  There's also the Goldbergs' awesome performance history to contend with.  Just consider some of the piano renditions (and I'm sticking to the piano for now) on WFCR's shelves:  Rosalyn Tureck.  Charles Rosen.  Maria Tipo.  Peter Serkin.  Murray Perahia.  András Schiff.  Angela Hewitt. Simone Dinnerstein.  And of course, the one and only Glenn Gould, from both the alpha and the omega of his strange, storied career.  Each pianist plays the same notes (minus an individual ornament or two); each tells a different story.  Not that there isn't room for another, but any artist who wants to follow the aforementioned and many more had better have a unique and compelling vision of the Goldberg Variations.

As does a pianist I admit to being unaware of until Tuesday.  I think I'm in love.  His name is Daniel-Ben Pienaar.  He's from South Africa, and now lives in London.  He devotes himself largely to the classic keyboard repertoire — Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin — which he's given to examining one-composer-at-a-time, and performing in very large portions (e.g., all six Bach Partitas in one evening).  And based on what I've heard so far, he's got plenty of flair and personality — even, dare I say, a touch of the theatrical (Bach theatrical? Perish the thought!).  Check out Pienaar's Goldberg Variations Wednesday afternoon on WFCR.  Bright tempos, sprightly rhythms, a broad palette of piano colors, a sense of play and fun, clear delineation of musical line — for once, a performance that actually bears the inevitable comparison of any new Goldbergs performance to Gould's.  Yet (and here's where I'm going to get in trouble with Gould acolytes) whereas Gould's dry sonority and harpsichord-like evenness of touch creates a mechanical, almost inhuman effect, Pienaar's more natural, conversational way of "speaking" the phrases makes his performance much more approachable and engaging.  To me, at least.  Let me know whether you agree.  And we'll give you a second chance to hear Pienaar's Goldbergs this Sunday on WFCR.

- John Montanari

This is a probing intellectual interpretation which on occasion displays dazzling feats of speed.... there is little doubting the jigsaw-puzzle accuracy and attention to detail with which Daniel-Ben Pienaar has formed his shaping of this masterpiece....  a superbly expressive and atmospheric recording of the Goldberg Variations.

- Dominy Clements MusicWebInternational

....his Goldberg Variations is again among the richest, most thoughtful and provocative accounts of the work I've come across.

- Jessica Duchen Click here to read

....his amazing upcoming Goldberg Variations recording: clearly articulated, rhythmically vibrant, beautifully phrased, and masterfully pedalled.

- Mark Ainley Click here to read

Very well equipped technically, he has a gift for unorthodox interpretations [for which he has] developed the technical tools to execute. His thoroughly pianistic version of Bach's Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, will appeal to those who like Glenn Gould's versions, especially the earlier one.

- James Manheim Allmusic



I doubt that any listener would fail to enjoy this performance.... but don't expect anything like Gould....
- Michael Jameson International Record Review


On balance, if you find Gould's extreme subjectivity annoying, you probably won't like Pienaar, either, but if you're interested in that territory, not much traversed lately, definitely give him a try.
- James Manheim Allmusic

This is certainly admirable piano playing, if rather earnest and 'proper' at times.
- Michael Jameson International Record Review


Several of these Goldbergs had me smiling, and a few made me laugh, but what's funny is the exuberance and playful wit of the music, not the naughty way in which it is played.
- Michael Tanner BBC Music Magazine

The exaggerated dotting of rhythms in Var. 7.... feel mannered.... In Var. 14 the descending pattern of mordent-like figures sound too clipped and percussive.
- Philip Kennicott Gramophone


Pienaar’s sensitivity to Bach’s dance style is demonstrated in a Giga [Var. 7] which barely touches the floor, so light is his touch on the keyboard.... Var. 14.... a horizontal sparkle of notes....
- Dominy Clements MusicWebInternational

Variation 4.... definitely needs more weight and character.... if the contrast with its immediate neighbours is to register.
- Michael Jameson International Record Review


....This sets the pace for the first grouping of variations which concludes with a rousing Variatio 4.
- Dominy Clements MusicWebInternational

Pienaar produces a breathless, highly energised reading....
- Philip Kennicott Gramophone


....with Pienaar, a feeling of naturalness and overall lucidity of approach, is keenly sensed....
- Michael Jameson International Record Review

....he seems intent on producing a reading that might work better heard live than it does under the more rigorous scrutiny of recording.
- Philip Kennicott Gramophone


....there is little doubting the jigsaw-puzzle accuracy and attention to detail with which Daniel-Ben Pienaar has formed his shaping of this masterpiece....
- Dominy Clements MusicWebInternational

His thoroughly pianistic version of Bach's Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, will appeal to those who like Glenn Gould's versions....
- James Manheim Allmusic


If Glenn Gould 'anti-harpsichordized' the Goldberg Variations, Pienaar indicates the opposite.
- Auditorium