The enlightened listening blog

On performing the Goldberg Variations again

Recently I performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations in public again for the first time in seventeen years. I could not believe it had been that long. Yet there was the inescapable evidence. My last go was for the Philadelphia Bach Society in 1994.

I hasten to point out that my apparent reluctance to air it again was not owing to a disasterous experience. My memories of the Philadelphia recital are happy ones, and the reviewer was even kind enough to mention that he would have been even happier if I had devoted the other half of the program to a performance of the same work on the harpsichord! I can only say that I sincerely believe that he would not have been. My brief skirmishes with the harpsichord have implanted in me a deep respect for the instrument and the very specialized skill required to play it well. My reasons for putting the work aside are probably well known to any performing pianist – there’s just so much else out there to play. The pianist’s repertoire is an endless supply of riches, and constituted the most compelling reason, beyond the sound and feel of the piano itself even, that I chose it over any other instrument.

I had performed the work probably thirty times during the previous decade and a half, and then this was followed by a break of more than that. I felt I needed to approach the preparation of the work as if it were new. I looked everywhere for better ways of doing things. I sought out places which had always given me trouble, or had never felt entirely comfortable,changing hand positions and fingerings. I investigated new ornamentations and articulations, new relationships between variations, especially contiguous ones. And most of all I looked for ways to bring out the individual character of each variation as vividly as possible, bringing them to life in my imagination and with luck the imaginations of my listeners.

In the past seventeen years, access to recorded music has blossomed wonderfully. I used to scramble about in used record stores seeking recordings of Bach cantatas, a repertoire I knew frustratingly little. Nowadays, for a few dollars a month, I have access to five versions of the complete cantatas, and free access to the complete scores online. The same goes, of course, for the orchestral music, and the instrumental and chamber music as well. Immersing oneself in this repertoire is, apart from being one of life’s great pleasures, essential for a comprehensive education in Bach style. Making choices about how to approach each variation based on its similarity to pieces I have heard elsewhere in Bach now becomes an almost scientific pursuit. It is surprising how many of the variations relate to the styles of dances, for example.

When I was first playing the work in the early 1980′s, the performance everyone knew was the first Glenn Gould recording. Orchestral and choral performances were only just beginning to take on the historically accurate style we know today. I was brought up on Karajan and Klemperer, and thrilled though I was at the time, I find it very hard to listen to now. I tried to listen to Giulini’s Mass in B Minor from 1970 recently, and couldn’t do it. Even the orchestral playing sounded throaty; I am so accustomed to spritzy Bach that treacly Bach doesn’t do it for me anymore.

In piano performance things have taken a somewhat less directly opposite path from, let’s say, Romantic to hyper-modern authentic as in the other repertoire. Gould defined hyper-modern, and ever since his two recordings, Bach playing on the piano has softened a little in its dazzling drive and speed. Angela Hewitt, one of today’s doyennes of Bach on the piano sounds closer to the old school with its more spacious approach and generous use of rubato, than to Gould and modern conductors such as Gardner and Hereweghe with their sizzling tempi and dynamic rhythmic drive.

Playing Bach on the piano is still considered cowboy territory by the new authentic school anyway, so it is not surprising to hear a wide range of approaches and little sense of conforming to any conventional wisdom. So the important thing is, as always, to find a way of playing the music which feels right to the performer, based on a healthy immersion in the broader repertoire of the composer. In Bach of all composers, this results in a great variety of approaches, new insights and surprises.

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One Response to On performing the Goldberg Variations again

  1. Cary Rogers says:

    The Goldbergs have been a recent adventure for me. I had taken a dislike to most Bach music when I was in my early 20′s after hearing a Gould recording of the Two & Three Part Inventions which seemed sterile and nothing more than an exercise in speed playing. As the years passed, I occasionally listened to Bach again, but never played his music. In preparation for your upcoming recital I decided to make myself knowledgable about the piece, and it opened up a whole new love for Bach, including tackling some of the keyboard works again.

    During the time I spent listening to many recordings of this monumental work I began to love it, and to see much more in Bach’s music than I did in the past before forsaking it. The lecture you have on the double CD set is truly enlightening on many levels. It is a piece of work that is truly worth the time to get to know on both academic and emotional levels, and one for which a number of interpretations are valid.

    Your recital was the first live performance of the Goldbergs I had experienced. It was exhillerating being only a few yards away from the piano as the piece unfolded. I look forward to the Diabelli Variation recital that is coming up on May 1, and hopefully a lecture recording about the piece as well.

    Best wishes!

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