Inside Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Lindsay Kemp
Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Owing to its Himalayan presence, Bach’s set of 30 keyboard variations is a daunting prospect for any recording artist. Lindsay Kemp speaks to Lang Lang – whose first recording of the work has just been released – and three of his fellow pianists about interpretation and courage, and how timing is everything


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Bach remains the god who diverts himself and makes child’s play of everything. But we, poor creatures, where can we find brain, heart and muscles à la hauteur to such a degree?’ The great harpsichord pioneer Wanda Landowska wrote this in 1933, the year of her first recording of Bach’s ‘Aria with Diverse Variations, for the Harpsichord with Two Manuals. Composed for Music Lovers, to Refresh their Spirits’ – otherwise known as the Goldberg Variations. She was one of the earliest artists to raise awareness of what was then a bit of a forgotten masterpiece, but nearly 90 years later it has become a keyboard icon. Surely there is no one with any meaningful acquaintance with Bach’s music who doesn’t see this miraculous creation towering over the landscape with the same Himalayan presence as the Well-Tempered Clavier, the St Matthew Passion or the solo violin and solo cello music; and can there be a pianist or harpsichordist unaware of its position as a cornerstone of the keyboard repertory?

To this day there have been more than 600 recordings made of the Goldbergs, but with its 30 variations encompassing nearly 80 minutes’ worth of virtuoso brilliance, miraculous canons and moments of superhuman beauty, it still presents a daunting project to artists of all calibres – one it would be ill-advised to take lightly. This is the kind of piece players can live with for years without ever feeling as if they have reached into its depths, a work that can make them feel that they have never got it entirely right. How, then, to decide on the ideal moment to commit it to record?

For Lang Lang, whose new recording of it is out now, it’s a piece that has sat with him for a long time. ‘I’ve played it for more than 20 years,’ he tells me. ‘In fact, I learnt it when I was 10 years old, and by 17 I had already played it in front of other musicians.’ The Goldbergs did not subsequently feature on his public recital programmes, but now, aged 38, he feels the right time has come. ‘I was hugely influenced as a kid by listening to Glenn Gould, which gave me a fantastic dream to do this piece. So I’ve always thought about performing it, and for the last 10 years I’ve wanted to record it, but I kept thinking at the last minute, “Let’s wait another year – prepare better!” But now is a good time. I love the piece so much, and if I’d kept putting it back I’d probably never have had the guts to do it!’

Beatrice Rana’s story: another early starter

The story of learning the Goldbergs at a young age with a view to laying it up for later is not unique. Not that everyone keeps it back as long as Lang Lang has. The young Italian pianist Beatrice Rana likewise learnt it while still a child. ‘One of my very first concerts in public, when I was 10, was an all-Bach recital, and in it I played the Aria from the Goldberg Variations,’ she confides. ‘Afterwards, my teacher said to me, “Just as an exercise, let’s beat the Goldbergs! Bring one variation to each lesson.” That was the beginning, but it was not meant to be played in concert, it was just for our private practice. So I read all of them, then left them. After a few years, when I was 17, my teacher said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to play the Goldbergs again?” So I picked up the book and started to practise, but I had to admit that I didn’t feel ready, it was too much. I couldn’t deal with the piece. But the score remained on the piano.’

Rana spent the next few years on the competition circuit, which culminated with her winning the Silver Medal at the Cliburn Competition in 2013. ‘The day after, I was like, “OK, I don’t have to learn anything for competitions any more, what do I really want to do?” And the first answer was the Goldbergs, because that piece was always with me.’ In November 2016, at the age of 23, Rana recorded the work – her first solo release. ‘With these massive masterpieces you have to start young in order to grow up with them and have the time to change opinions. And this is the kind of music that’s so full of ideas, so majestic in its architecture, that you understand more about it as time goes on. I know that even now, just four years later, I would do things differently.’

Angela Hewitt: undaunted teen

Rana is still only 27, but it is understandable that recording a piece such as this 13 years after learning it should seem to her ‘not so soon’. Yet even as distinguished a Bach pianist as Angela Hewitt waited nearly twice as long before committing the Goldbergs to disc in 1999. In contrast to Rana’s experience, it was a competition that caused her to learn the piece. ‘I can see that it was in October 1974,’ she recalls, after consulting the battered and much annotated score she used then and still uses now. ‘I was 16 years old and learnt it because there was a Bach competition in Washington DC in the summer of 1975 and it was the test piece. We had to play up to Variation 15 in the first round, from 16 to the end in the second, and the complete thing in the final round. So my teacher gave it to me and said, “I wouldn’t normally give this to a student of your age, but you already have a mind for Bach.” And I’m forever grateful, because when you learn a piece at that age it sticks with you for the rest of your life. You know, you can get up and play it in the middle of the night.’

Perhaps Hewitt is referencing the story behind the unusual original title of this piece, related in 1802 by the composer’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel. Forkel tells us that Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a highly talented pupil of Bach, was living in the household of Count Keyserlingk, the Russian ambassador to the court of Saxony in Dresden, and that Keyserlingk, an insomniac, asked Bach to write some pieces for Goldberg to play to him ‘that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights’. The story has long had its doubters, not least because Goldberg was possibly as young as 14 when the variations were published in 1741. But as we have seen, the music is not beyond a teenager’s fingers. In a further echo of the young Goldberg’s experience, Hewitt recalls that she was undaunted by the work. ‘I wasn’t afraid of it. Bach was such a part of my upbringing and language’ – her father was a cathedral organist – ‘and my teacher had played it a lot, so he could help me with some of the most gnarly bits; he really knew the piece and was a wonderful guide.’

Igor Levit: the reluctant goldberger

For Igor Levit, the route to the Goldbergs was different again. He recorded the work aged 28 in 2015 as part of an ambitious three-disc set alongside Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! ‘First of all, I refuse to believe that there are pieces where you have to be a certain age to perform them,’ he tells me. ‘If you feel right and you have the ability to pull something off, pull it off! I know of children who have more life experience and more knowledge of suffering than some of my distinguished colleagues who believe that with age comes wisdom. For a long time I didn’t want to play the Goldbergs because my most beloved recordings of it were all on the harpsichord, and I thought all the hand-crossing and the canons would sound dull on the piano. That’s what I thought in my early twenties – and even in 2014, while I was recording the Partitas because I thought they sounded really good on the piano. As I developed as a person I realised this was kind of a stupid thing to say, and made the decision to learn the Goldbergs and see how far I could get. When I realised this music could sound right on the piano I got a great desire to record it alongside the Diabelli and People as a statement about the three most powerful variation sets for the instrument. It was a really uplifting thing to do, knowing that it would be part of that project.’

Two sides of the same coin

That the 30 variations were written for harpsichord is a fact that cannot be ignored when transferring it to the piano. Landowska even thought its unpopularity before her time was down to the fact that it could not be made to work satisfactorily on the piano – though that doesn’t seem to have bothered too many people since. Even so, some measure of authenticity with regard to the original circumstance of the piece’s composition has to be taken into account. ‘I believe this piece cannot be explained only in terms of the piano,’ says Lang Lang. ‘It has to be looked at in the bigger picture of the instruments of the period, of the harpsichord, the organ – and ornamentation, which plays a pretty major role in this piece, especially in the repeats. I can’t just say to myself, “This trill feels nice!” It has to be done for a real reason.’ Lang Lang found himself seeking advice from the German keyboardist Andreas Staier (whose own recording of the Goldbergs in 2009 is one of those harpsichord favourites of Levit’s). ‘He said to me, “I know why you play Beethoven, I know why you play Rachmaninov. You are a player with a lot of heart. But tell me why you are playing Bach. You know the basic rules now, but they are not enough. You have to learn new rules and create something that’s somehow authentic, but also make a real passionate sound, not like you’re playing an exercise.”’

Staier is not the only Baroque sage to have impacted on Lang Lang’s thinking about the piece. As early as 2007 he visited and played for Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a meeting which led to them later performing and recording Beethoven and Mozart piano concertos together. Harnoncourt’s advice on the Goldbergs was typically forthright. ‘He didn’t want me to play the fast variations,’ Lang Lang recalls, ‘he just wanted me to play the Aria, Variations 13 and 25 – all the slower passages. I played them in quite a square way, following the down-beat, quite straightforward, and he said, “Why are you playing like this?” I said that I thought this was the way to play Bach, more concentrated in style and sound, not leaping around, not changing colours too much. “Nonsense!” he said, and started singing a passage from near the end of the Aria. “Here you have to think you are the most lonely person in the world, you are all on your own, nobody talks to you. You have to feel this sadness here.” So I played it several times, and he would say, “This is not dark enough, this is not sad enough, do it again!” When I played the Adagio, Variation 25, he said, “How could you play it like that? Horrible! This is absolutely the wrong way of even thinking about Baroque music. Are you crazy? Where is your heart? It should be the same as when you play Chopin or Brahms or Mozart. You cannot put up a wall between yourself and your emotions!” This is something I learnt from Harnoncourt and Staier: that Baroque music has lots of rules that are different from Classical rules or Romantic rules, but at the end of the day you can’t lock yourself out from the reason for actually playing the piece.’

So how difficult is it to marry the intimidating intellectual demands of this piece with this need for personal expressivity? For Rana, that tension was all part of the fascination. ‘One of the reasons I wanted to record the Goldberg Variations was because I felt a strong connection with it and had quite a personal view of it. It’s a masterpiece, of course, almost like a product of God, which can make it seem almost untouchable. But I feel there is lot of humanity in it, in the fact that the holy and the worldly come completely together. In every variation there is something very human, in the rhythm or the harmonies or how it develops. But at the end, in the repetition of the Aria, you realise that you have experienced something incredibly spiritual. These two aspects coming together make it quite unique.’

Seizing the moment

Then there is the question of how spontaneous one should be. Rana feels the right approach is about ‘understanding the piece and developing an interpretation, but at the same time leaving room for spontaneity’. She explains, ‘We have to be faithful to the composer and the score, but we also have to be faithful to ourselves.’ Hewitt remembers her experience at the 1999 recording, when, with everything secured in the can, she went back in after dinner and laid down the whole thing once more in a single complete take. ‘It was just so different and so far above anything I’d ever done in 25 years that I think most of the final recording comes from that one version, taken late at night with my producer and my piano tuner sitting on the floor listening to me. That moment was really special – and really the right time for me.’

To his surprise, Lang Lang had a similar experience, even if it occurred in a different order. ‘I did four days in the studio trying to achieve as much as I could with all my ideas about certain different formulae, being precise with the sound and characterising certain variations. There was a lot of experimentation; sometimes I tried maybe two or three different interpretations per variation. I just wanted to get everything in there and see in the end which direction to take in the final mix. Then I got the first edit, and I kind of liked it, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied. There were things in it that I thought were great, but as a whole it didn’t feel unified. So I asked the engineers to send me the recording of a concert performance I’d given in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig earlier that month, an unbelievable experience with Bach’s grave nearby. And I loved it! This was exactly the unified feel I was thinking of, right there.’

Lang Lang subsequently took the decision to issue the two recordings together. ‘The thing was that after the Leipzig performance I’d been working hard on the details I thought would take my interpretation to a higher level. I basically thought I knew the interpretation I was after, but still wanted to try bringing out different voices, or playing a bit more together, or putting the dots on the first beat to vary the articulation. But when I heard the live recording, I felt my heart was really in it. That helped me make decisions about the editing of the studio version; and, of course, there’s more detail, more precision and some deeper thoughts in that one. So they are two different recordings, but with similarities – clearly the same person at work. At the end of the day, you have to be sincere to your interpretations – that’s what that live recording taught me.’

If interpretations can change and clarify in such a short space of time, then how much can happen over a longer period? Hewitt took the Goldbergs back into the studio in 2015, and declares the result ‘more free, with more contrasts, more bounce in the rhythm. I would never think of putting myself into the score, but that’s just how it comes out because you’re the person playing it, and it’s how you feel at certain times.’ ‘People change!’ agrees Levit. ‘And things change. It matters where you’re playing, who you’re playing for – you go with the flow. If you are a creative artist it has to be about change, and if it doesn’t change, it dies. I’m with Keith Richards when he says, “I’m not getting old, I’m evolving!”’

For Lang Lang, it’s about seizing the moment. ‘The reason I recorded the Goldberg Variations now is because I feel ready. I’ve found that I have a common understanding of it and feel comfortable with it. When I was studying with Daniel Barenboim, he always said that I have to be sure about doing something, or else it will be an interpretation that won’t stand firm. With the Goldbergs you have to have confidence in what you’re doing. If you don’t, you’re not ready.’

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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