Dimming the lights for sensuously flowing Bach

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Dimming the lights for sensuously flowing Bach
A photo provided by Jennifer Taylor of Jean Rondeau’s recital in Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York. The harpsichordist Jean Rondeau played the “Goldberg” Variations at Weill Recital Hall, the most intimate of Carnegie’s three spaces, with patience and a vibrant yet subtle touch. Jennifer Taylor via The New York Times.

by Zachary Woolfe

NEW YORK, NY.- A quiet battle over lighting simmers in classical music. During concerts, halls tend to be kept bright enough for audience members to be able to find their cough drops and consult their programs. But where’s the focus and drama in that? The brightness can come across as stilted and bland compared with what it’s like at a movie or play. But the lights have stayed, mostly, on.

For his return to Carnegie Hall on Thursday evening, though, the superb harpsichordist Jean Rondeau turned them off.

He made Weill Recital Hall, the most intimate of Carnegie’s three spaces, unusually dark for his performance of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations. The only illumination was a dim spot on him and his instrument. The effect was nocturnal, even séance-like, adding extra dreaminess to his brief improvisation at the start that flowed into the familiar opening of Bach’s gentle Aria.

Despite the dramatic lighting and that surprising prelude, this “Goldbergs” avoided attention-grabbing thrills. Rondeau, 31, is not an artist of stark contrasts or broad colors. His theatricality is patient and natural; his touch is vibrant but subtle.

This rendition of the “Goldbergs” — Bach’s set of 30 variations on that Aria — was not the kind to exaggerate or even emphasize the, well, variation. (Mahan Esfahani, another leading harpsichordist of the younger generation, does that vividly on his 2016 recording.) Rondeau’s version more takes the form of an unfurling carpet: variety in its pattern, but one long piece of fabric.

This impression of sustaining a single arc is all the more remarkable given the considerable length of his rendition. His performance of the “Goldbergs” on Thursday had roughly the same dimensions as the 106-minute recording he released this year — of a piece that often runs half an hour shorter than that.

Rondeau gets to that duration by opening up small pauses and spaces for breath and ornamentation, gradually increasing the run time without (usually) taking tempos that come off as unduly slow.

The result isn’t lugubrious on the album, and it isn’t in performance, either. Rondeau’s Bach is a voyage taken with sensual but serene, silvery lightness of texture and moment-by-moment flexibility, though it took some time on Thursday to acclimate to what, over the first half-hour or so, seemed almost homogeneous.

But by the ardent legato flow of his 13th Variation — a steadily unwinding lyricism made possible by the precision of his technique — the accumulating power of the interpretation was clear. Even with a substantial pause between the 17th and 18th variations, Rondeau maintained a sinuous connection between the tension of the harmonic wanderings in the first and the strumming release of the second.

In the 20th, the clarity of his finger work allowed him to bend, shape and blur the meter without losing the pulse. He refused to milk the melancholy of the sprawling 25th, maintaining an elegant restraint that coursed into the virtuosic combination of courtliness and dense, smoky chromatic fireworks in the late variations.

The return of the Aria after this odyssey was hardly a safe, secure homecoming. Rondeau ornamented it so elaborately — though, still, so unshowily — that it felt like yet another variation. Another stop on an ongoing journey, not the end.

Jean Rondeau

Performed on Thursday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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