Romantic Baroque: Bach’s Goldberg Variations
Romantic baroque: no, it’s not an oxymoron – it’s how I describe Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
The Goldberg Variations are one of Bach’s major works for the keyboard, showcasing the most sublime of baroque counterpoints, and yet oozing with the most sensitive musicality more typical of mid-nineteenth century piano Romanticism. There is endless material for analysis and interpretation in the Variations, but their romanticism is one of the most striking aspects and puts the work far ahead of its time. That’s something worth thinking about, not only when listening to it, but also when playing it.
The Goldberg Variations are made up of one aria (the theme) and 30 variations. The contested story of their composition is that a Russian diplomat who suffered from insomnia commissioned them from Bach as the 18th century equivalent of a sleeping tablet. The diplomat employed one of the important keyboard virtuosi of his time, Johann Gottfried Goldberg – who at the time of the variation’s composition, may have only been about 13 or 14 – and he wanted Goldberg to play music soothing enough to help him sleep at night, but lively enough to cheer him up. The historical accuracy of this story is nowadays debated, but it is nevertheless very useful to have it in mind when tackling the piece as a performer. That’s because it conveys the mood of the music so fittingly as a sort of emotional berceuse (albeit a sophisticated one, given its alleged original audience and the technical challenges it presents to the performer).
The variations were originally written for harpsichord. Playing them on the piano inevitably results in some ‘loss in translation’, but it’s not necessarily all bad. Because of the mechanics of the instrument, the piano also allows a much broader range of colours and texture that is simply impossible to create on the harpsichord. This is undoubtedly why there is such a variety in the piano interpretations of the work. From the very pianistic, like Joanna MacGregor’s recording, to the more mathematical interpretations of Glenn Gould, you find a pretty wide spectrum that is a testament to the versatility and richness of Bach’s masterpiece. Listening to the different interpretations in this case is actually a great learning tool, unlike with other pieces that have a narrower margin for maneuver and are therefore more likely to set up the dangerous trap of inviting mimicry rather than inspiration. It also greatly helps you to decipher the sometimes tricky syncopation in the aria
and some of the variations.
Although the variations have been played and recorded by many artists, it’s hard to overstate Glenn Gould’s significance in establishing them as one of the highlights of the Bach catalog. His two recordings are considered seminal. At the young age of 22, he insisted on recording what was at the time a less well-known work, despite his label’s recalcitrance. That first recording, from 1955, showcases his impeccable sense of timing and the bewildering control he had of his fingers. It’s a dazzling display. Almost too dazzling, in the sense that the virtuosity he showcases is one beyond the technical reach of amateur – if not many professional – pianists.
Nearly thirty years later, Gould recorded the variations again. The two interpretations are worlds apart, with one of the few commonalities being his mechanically perfect technique. The 1981 recording is in a much, much slower tempo, and intensely introspective, maybe a sign of the maturity he acquired and a whole new perspective on what it takes for a performance to be musical. His playing there harks back to the lullaby quality associated to the variations historically, and this despite his prominent use of staccato and the minimal use of the sustaining pedal. A lesson to those of us who sometimes try to hide some of our imperfections with too heavy a dose of pedal!
For those who are looking for a very clever balance between baroque rigour and the musicality of the piece, without treading far at either extreme, Lars Vogt’s recent album is a great find. It’s modern without being unrecognisably avant-garde, and intimate enough that the original quality of the work is preserved. I feel almost ashamed to admit that I prefer his interpretation by far to either of Gould’s. They are more honest and let the soul of the work shine through without complicating or over-philosophising its meaning.
What about on a practical level to the amateur pianist? For one, this is not an easy work to tackle. It’s long, hugely demanding technically, with complex rhythmic patterns, and hands crossing and tangling into each other like two battling tarantulas. Not many of us are Glenn Goulds. And for us the less daunting way of diving into the variations could be to look at the aria and each variation individually, as independent pieces. Learn them out of order if you must, omit some of the ornamentations and keep it simple. The most important thing is to let them keep their soulfulness.
Sandra Sahyouni studied piano, theory and ear training at the McGill Conservatory in Montreal, Canada.