A spring cleaning for the Goldberg Variations

Last month, my colleagues in Ensemble Epomeo and I had a chance to dust off our scores to Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s wonderful string trio arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Coming back to this most special of pieces was as inspiring, rewarding and humbling as ever, and I’ve been meaning to share a few thoughts about it since then.

We toured with the piece in 2009, and played it many times. Happily, the feedback we got was extremely positive, but I don’t think we ever quite felt satisfied. Generally speaking, the older the music, the less is notated in terms of how one should play it, and the more the performance depends on a sense of style and intuition, and in trying to accommodate each other’s ideas, I felt like we’d ended up with a performance that didn’t express a single point of view with enough clarity of purpose.  I found our reading a bit “neither fish nor fowl.” This time, with much more time together as a group under our belts, we all felt more emboldened to stick to our guns. The upshot was probably quite a few more spirited discussions, but a more interesting performance.

I suppose the obvious, if simplistic, question facing a modern-instrument group playing Bach is “how ‘Baroque’ are we going to be?” All of us have experience playing early music in the Historically Informed manner–playing without vibrato and using a vocabulary of bow strokes that try to approximate the articulations one would get with a baroque bow, but all of us also play with colleagues who play early music with an unashamedly modern-instrument approach.

I firmly believe that the answers almost always lie in the scores. If there is a compelling reason to use the faster tempi and lighter sound associated with a HIP approach, it’s to be found in the music, not in a treatise or a diatribe (not even this diatribe). Ultimately, one’s personal taste should be subservient to what you understand the music requires from you as a performer.

Ultimately, it’s about finding out what works. In this sense, the Goldberg Variations are fraught with danger, because every single bar is so beautiful and so perfectly organized, than you can play it in virtually any tempo and with any sound at any time and get a good result as long as you are in tune and together (or playing the right notes on a keyboard). The danger of the Goldbergs is that the piece is so huge, and it shouldn’t be boring for one single second.

 

To me, there are a few fundamental truths I always try to keep in mind in Bach-

1-    As with all Baroque music, there is almost always some element of dance in the rhythm

2-    This means that the meter of the music must always be heard and felt. There has to be some differentiation between strong and weak beats, and some hierarchy between big musical impulses that launch or carry the music forward, and interior beats that simply allow the continuation of the musical momentum

3-    Just as there is a hierarchy of strong and weak beats, there ought to be a parallel hierarchy of bars- generally speaking, the beginning of  a phrase needs a sense of impulse. Even numbered bars, like even numbered beats, tend to be lighter

4-    We call them “contrapuntal voices” for a reason. All of the voices in a Bach work, whether a melody, bass line or fugal development should make sense when sung independently.

5-    This means that you ought to play the music on your instrument in a tempo in which it could be sung. A single, complete musical thought ought to be something you can express vocally in a single breath, and something that holds together for the ear and has shape in the absence of the other parts.

 

In the case of the Goldberg Variations, the first trap is right at the beginning. The Aria is so beautiful that it sounds magical at almost any speed, but played too slowly, the richness of the material that Bach is going to develop for the next hour or so  becomes obscured. Bach even gives us a big clue by calling it an Aria- it’s explicitly meant to be sing-able. In the 20th c. I think too many musicians equated “cantabile” with a voluptuous approach to sound and a turgid approach to tempo. The wrongheadedness of such an approach should be self evident- for a singer, a more voluptuous sound uses more air, not less, which means they can’t schlepp along. We string players, especially cellists, like to wallow, at leisure, in our cantabile sound.

Also, in the case of the Goldberg Variations, it seems like the Aria should be able to sing on the instrument for which it was conceived. Bach’s music is the most transcribe-able ever written, and he often transcribed his own works for different instruments, but he clearly expected that the Aria, played on harpsichord rather than Steinway or modern violin or trombone, would sing and have line. Yes, a violinist, or even a pianist, can sustain a singing line at almost any tempo, but pity the poor harpsichord player trying to make his or her line sing.

How often does one hear the opening of the Bach played (whether on keyboard or by a trio) at a speed where someone singing the violin/top part would have to gasp for air every bar, or at best, every other bar. Of course, you can make an argument that the first two bars of the melody constitutes a single , complete musical thought… But only if you don’t attempt to sing the bass line (the cello part in the trio version).

My part, the lowest voice, descends stepwise from G down a G major scale, moving basically one note per bar. That means that at the end of the of the second bar, I’m sitting on an F#, a very unstable note in G major. It’s not a place to breathe between phrase-lets. In fact, there’s no good place for me to breathe until the end of the first 8 bar phrase.  At a speed where I can sing that, my line finally has shape and direction, and you can sense some differentiation between the strong and weak bars in my part.

It also means that the melody starts to dance, and as I said, dance rhythm is almost always central to music of the Baroque.

Does this mean I’m saying that your beloved Goldberg Variations recording with the Aria ala Molto Adagio is wrong?

Well, yes, I suppose it does. (I just don’t think anyone else need worry about my judgement).

I’m not suggesting it’s not beautiful, it probably is. But at such a slow tempo, much of the material that Bach is introducing comes across as shapeless and anonymous. For instance, Bach does a LOT with my bass line in the ensuing variations, but if you can’t perceive it as thematic, as having shape and structure, that connection is lost. And, of course, people tend to start as they mean to continue, and if someone isn’t hearing the structure of the bars and the structure of the beats in the Aria, they’re probably not going to hear and project them in the rest of the piece. If the first bar of the Aria sounds like three beautiful, static downbeats, chances are, your audience will be asleep faster than the nobleman Bach wrote the piece for.

Last time out, we were probably all thinking along these lines, but were a little cautious and over-reverential about letting the music dance, at least from my perspective. I felt we needed to take bigger risks as a group, and forget how we’ve heard it in the past and instead really engage boldly with the score.

As always, it’s the score that holds the key to figuring out how to play a piece. In the end, I prefer the transparency and fluidity of a more HIP sound concept in Bach because I think it let’s the music dance and take flight. If you’ve grown up playing Brahms and Wagner, you’re always likely to think in terms of sustaining and developing the sound. In Bach, we have to release the sound, free the sound, let the music take flight and not love it to death.

Remember- playing Bach slowly, loudly and voluptuously is not the same thing as playing it beautifully, let alone vibrantly.

Ultimately, we have to free ourselves of the fear that we’re going to lose that reverential beauty we’ve become used to in familiar and beloved performances if we try to let the music take flight at a tempo that makes more sense of the harmonic rhythm, meter and phrase structure. Bach, happily, doesn’t force you to give things up- he rewards you with the every greater beauties that the music is always ready to reveal if you just keep struggling to understand it.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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