He became somewhat famous after a review of his first CD, a recording of the complete Goldberg Variations, was featured in the New York Times in 2009. It is a very interesting disc. The marimba has a very distinct voice, a strong attack with much less dynamic range than a piano, and very little decay. Cheung plays entire variations with the touch of a feather, which almost seems contradictory since the marimba sounds loud even when played softly. Aside from soft/loud, his only other recourse is to use rubato to shape the music. He likes to delay notes for emphasis, or slow down a passage to a near grinding halt. Some of the faster variations are taken at a slower than usual tempo, but are executed flawlessly. It almost makes you wonder if the Goldberg Variations couldn't be played on the piano with two fingers
Here is that original 2009 NYT feature:
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Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ as You’ve Never Heard It
By VIVIEN SCHWEITZER
Published: August 28, 2009
BACH, though an energetic transcriber of other composers’ music, could never have imagined the stampede of arrangers his own scores would attract in a distant future. His “Goldberg” Variations, written for a two-manual harpsichord in 1742, have been widely coveted since Glenn Gould’s landmark 1955 recording on the piano: interpreted and misinterpreted by pianists, jazz trios, guitarists, accordionists, saxophone quartets and others. Now two harpists and a marimba player have entered the fray with recordings of their own transcriptions.
You have to think that Bach would appreciate the inventiveness of Pius Cheung’s version, billed as the first recording of the “Goldberg” Variations on marimba. With the marimba coming into its own as a solo instrument, it was only a matter of time before an enterprising player laid hands on the work. In booklet notes for the recording, released independently, Mr. Cheung, a young Chinese-Canadian virtuoso, writes that the piece is “incredibly difficult” to play on the instrument. But he surmounts the contrapuntal hurdles and offers a stylish, deeply expressive interpretation notable for its clear voicing, eloquent phrasing and wide range of color and dynamics.
Mr. Cheung writes that he tried to do as little arranging of the original score as possible, apart from adapting some of the ornamentation and transposing bass notes that are out of the marimba’s range an octave higher. Since mallets can’t fly as fast as fingers, he takes Variations like Nos. 5 and 26 at slower tempos than those typically heard on the piano or harpsichord. But his elegantly paced Aria, his dynamic playing of Variations Nos. 4 and 18 and his musical, graceful renditions of Nos. 7 and 9 are particularly successful.
There are marimba-specific textural effects, like the blending of brighter high notes over the duskier lower range, with its mellow overtones. The rapid passages in Nos. 14 and 29, illuminating the contrasting timbres of the instrument, are striking. Mr. Cheung captures the dark-hued beauty of No. 25, although in this variation and others the highest notes sometimes sound piercingly bright, perhaps because of the positioning of the microphones.
Over all Mr. Cheung’s recording sounds more idiomatic than some piano performances. Bach on the piano has long ceased to be a novelty but can still sound excessively interpreted. The fine pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s admirable and much lauded Telarc recording is often idiosyncratic, and her baffling recent performance in a late-night recital at the Mostly Mozart Festival was even more extreme.
Transcribing the “Goldberg” Variations for harp is tricky because of the mechanics of the instrument. Performers use seven pedals (one for each note of the diatonic scale) to change the pitches of the strings. So it is hard to play, for example, the chromatic 25th variation, which requires impossibly fast footwork on the harp.
The Welsh harpist Catrin Finch listened to Gould’s recordings before making her arrangement. In booklet notes for her Deutsche Grammophon disc, she points out that harp scores look like piano scores, with one clef for the right hand and one for the left. Her main challenge was to adapt the fingering, which until Variation No. 5 (where the left hand makes leaps) was straightforward. The French harpist Sylvain Blassel, for his recording on the Lontano label, plays the original score (unmodified except for a six-note chromatic passage) on a 1904 Érard harp.
There is much to commend on each disc, with both musicians offering expressive, virtuoso performances that illuminate the myriad moods and depth of the 30 variations. But listeners who enjoy Bach on the harpsichord — or on the piano with a crisp touch and minimal pedal — will prefer Mr. Blassel’s rendition over Ms. Finch’s Romantic, flashier interpretation.
The problem of the harp’s resonance pervades Ms. Finch’s recording to a greater degree than Mr. Blassel’s. This resonance cloaks some sections in an impressionistic New Age haze, as in Ms. Finch’s fast rendition of the first variation.
Mr. Blassel’s slower interpretation of that number sounds much crisper. His moderately paced version of the fifth variation also sounds cleaner than Ms. Finch’s whirlwind. Her eighth variation almost disappears into resonant swirls of sound. Ms. Finch’s most effective moments are in the slower variations, as in her musicianly interpretation of the seventh.
The engineering of each disc also affects the results. The less brash sound on Mr. Blassel’s reveals a more introspective, intimate interpretation that renders his performance a more natural fit for the harp.
Some listeners might wonder whether more recordings of the variations on novelty instruments are necessary, and purist fans might feel that harpists and marimba players are trespassing on hallowed ground. But devotees of those instruments will be thrilled to enjoy Bach’s masterpiece on familiar territory.