When Canadian classical pianist Glenn Gould released his debut album in 1955, Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” — a set of
30 contrapuntal variations beginning and ending with an aria — was outside the standard piano repertoire, having been recorded on the instrument only a few times before, either on small labels or unreleased.
The work was considered esoteric and technically demanding, requiring hand crossing in various places when played on a piano. (It was originally written to be played on the harpsichord.) Even so, the work has long been regarded as the most important set of variations composed in the Baroque era.
Gould’s album both established the “Goldberg Variations” within the contemporary classical repertoire and made him an internationally famous pianist nearly overnight.
Now, more than half a century later, a 20-year-old prodigy from Kent, England, shows up in Napa as part of the Festival del Sole lineup to counter the adage that talent is wasted on the young. Or was that youth?
Regardless, Poole — two years younger than Gould when he recorded the intellectual Bach work — tossed off the “Goldberg Variations” Tuesday morning at Jarvis Conservatory like it was something he did every morning after breakfast.
However, the young artist — hailed by critics and audiences alike as one of the top pianists of Europe — made a special trip to this year’s edition of Festival del Sole to play for local concertgoers. The Bouchaine Young Artist Concert performer told the packed venue he’d flown 11 hours from London just to share his love of “one of the greatest compositions ever written.” He noted that “Napa Valley is a stunning place ... certainly worth the 11-hour flight.”
His carefree demeanor turned serious when he settled onto the piano bench to tackle the iconic Bach work.
Tossing off numerous short trills and appoggiaturas, tackling two-part hand-crossing variations again and again, impressing with gigue and sarabande, the young pianist didn’t even break a sweat.
Totally at one with the difficult Bach work, Poole played with disarming freshness and spontaneity. The characterization was keen, the playing both thoughtful and imaginative, deft and sprightly, and the slower variations had considerable depth, particularly No. 25, the one some refer to as “the black pearl” of the set.
Some might feel the young Brit comes off a bit too introspective at times. I would counter that he shows a natural use of light and shade, offering a pleasing linear flow. On top of that, the young man demonstrated admirable directness and a keen sense of enjoyment.
Oliver Poole lived up to his advance billing, and, personally, I believe Gould would have been pleased.