This weekend, I’ll be playing the marvelous transcription of the Goldberg Variations made for string trio by Dmitri Sitkovetsky at the Harborough Music Collective with violinist David Le Page and violist Carmen Flores. Coffee Concerts take place at 3pm on Sundays at The Congregational Church, Market Harborough LE167JD. Tickets are £11 (concessions £9, under 18s free) and can be reserved in advanced by calling07903020101 or are available at the door. Ticket price includes coffee, tea and biscuits.
I was reminded that I recently wrote an essay on the Goldberg Variations as part of a 6 CD set of live recordings by the legendary pianist Howard Karp, which will be released later this spring on Albany Records. I thought posting that essay here might well whet your appetite for both concert and CD.
Disc five begins with the earliest recorded performance in this collection, from October 1962. Although Karp had only played the Goldberg Variations once before in public, his acquaintance with the work went back to his student days. “I first studied the Goldberg Variations with Rosina Lhevinne as a graduate student at the Juilliard School of Music. She made it clear to me that she had never previously had a student study the work with her, yet she was able to assist me admirably because of her natural musicality and disciplined mind. I had the feeling that she would have played the work magnificently.”
Modern research has thrown into serious doubt the veracity of the popular story that Bach wrote the Variations to give comfort to a visiting nobleman suffering from insomnia. Unlike most of Bach’s music, the Variations were published in his lifetime, and there is no mention made in the score of a dedication to either Count Kaiserling, whose sleep difficulties were purported to have inspired the work, nor of his long-suffering keyboardist, the now-immortalized Mr. Goldberg.
Bach is known to have always maintained an interest in the evolution of new keyboard instruments throughout his life, and it seems inconceivable that he would not have been amazed and delighted by the possibilities of the modern Steinway. Nonetheless, Bach was also a composer who knew how to stretch the possibilities of the instruments he had available to him and, throughout the Variations, he makes particular use of the possibilities of the two-manual keyboard in writing parts that cross and even overlap. This means that performance of these works on a single-keyboard piano offers a number of possibilities to expand or refine the textural and coloristic possibilities of the work, but also creates some very specific and very awkward technical challenges which are not a factor when playing the work on an instrument with two keyboards. Karp is absolutely clear on which pianists he feels best handle both the possibilities and the challenges of playing Bach on the piano “The pianist whose playing of Bach I loved above all was Rosalyn Tureck, and I also loved William Kapell’s Bach”
Pianists and musicologists have long argued over how far one can go in the direction of exploiting the strengths of the modern piano, particularly its ability to sustain a singing line, without losing the clarity of texture Bach’s music demands. Karp’s approach to the use of the damper pedal is tellingly more pragmatic than puritanical: “Andras Schiff is also a favorite. I first heard Schiff play Book I of the Well Tempered Klavier, and I recall his using the pedal sparingly. Later, I heard his Bach playing at the University of Wisconsin when he used no damper pedal— I admired both performances, yet preferred the first. I also attempt to use pedal sparingly in Bach.”
Whatever the origins of the work, the as Bach titled it is, without doubt, one of his most serious-minded and carefully structured pieces. The absolute rigor of the form is rather belied by the extent to which the rather academic-sounding structure of the piece presents the “connoisseurs” to whom it was offered, not a lesson in development and counterpoint, but, in the words of Bach, “refreshment of their spirits.”
The opening Aria is, in fact, a dance movement, a fact often forgotten by modern interpreters. “The tempo of the opening Aria of the Goldberg Variations should simply be in the tempo of an ornamented Sarabande,” says Karp, adding, “The tempi I chose for the Variations seemed to “play themselves.” Karp’s nonchalant observation points out an important fact about the structure of the piece— the thirty variations are derived not from the melody of the Aria, but from its bass line, and if that bass line isn’t played with direction and shape, the entire piece starts to feel long and aimless. Melodic self-indulgence in the Aria is likely to lead to all sorts of difficulty in making sense of the tempi of the variations to follow.
The variations themselves follow a very strict pattern— nine times in a row two variations of freely chosen character are followed by a canon, and the canons are all built at sequentially increasing intervals, starting with a “Cannone all’Unisuono” (canon at the unison) and working up to a “Cannone alla Nona” (canon at the ninth). At the halfway point of the work, there is a “Cannone alla Quinta” followed by a new beginning, in grand French Overture style. It is worth pointing out Bach’s genius in his handling of the canons, none of which sound in any way dry or studied, but are as diverse and original in character as all of the other more freely constructed variations. In place of a final “Cannone alla Decimo” Bach offers us a final “Quodlibet.” This astounding movement, less than two minutes long in Karp’s performance, manages to bring together not only many of the threads of the previous variations, but also to introduce quotations from several German folk themes. As with the cannons, a description of it sounds terribly dry and academic as described, until one realizes that the text of one of those folk songs reads “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay”. Bach wore his greatness more comfortably than most composers, and part of his unique genius was the ability to make the most learned of musical forms come alive with humor and humanity.