Do we need another "Goldberg Variations"?

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c hris johnson wrote:

Differences in dynamics, phrasing,ornamentation possibly, but for repeated listening too much ornamentation, however nice it sounds on first hearing, may pall on later acquaintance.  

Yes, you are right about that, though it is not something I have really thought about before. Ideally, ornaments would be thrown in on the spur of the moment in live performances, but in recordings I suppose they have to be more considered........You would think that a choice few would be the ideal approach for repeated listening. 

janeeliotgardiner wrote:

janeeliotgardiner wrote:

 

c hris johnson wrote:
...but for repeated listening too much ornamentation, however nice it sounds on first hearing, may pall on later acquaintance.  

 

Yes, you are right about that, though it is not something I have really thought about before. Ideally, ornaments would be thrown in on the spur of the moment in live performances, but in recordings I suppose they have to be more considered........You would think that a choice few would be the ideal approach for repeated listening. 

In principle I fully agree with this. On the other hand some ornaments, properly done and in the right place, can sound like they form part of the skeleton of the music. Bach himself was accused in his time of writing down too many of them, but he must’ve thought something along these lines. I remember that time ago Chris shared a link of someone playing the aria without the written out ornaments and sounded awful.

 

Respectfully to Chris.

To join the small chorus here and repeat a mere "Welcome" would be an understatement. It is always a pleasure and honour to have you here, Chris. Please allow me some comments on you long but always eloquent post:

-Yes, there are too many "Goldbergs" and quite a few just the last few years, not necessarily most of them...a revelation. 

- The sleeve notes of the recordings I have or at least of the ones I mentioned (Koroliov, Vinikour, Zhu Xiao-Mei or A. Hewitt) are written either by the players themselves or by people who have both listened and talked with the soloists as well. So, there is enough good and precise information about quite a few aspects of the work, including the repeats.

- The tempo is a good indication of the (overall perhaps) performance of the Goldberg Variations. However, it is also tricky, since Koroliov gives the sense of a slow (or at least broad) tempo, mainly because he takes the Aria and the slow Variations too relaxed and broadly, while he is quite fast in some more virtuosic ones. Vinikour, on the harpsichord, more or less manages to do the same thing. 

- As for the repeats, all or none have the value of consistency. In any case, the work is written with the repeats to be performed (I trust you know the score). I do not believe seasoned and very fine soloists like Koroliov, Vinikour, Zhu Xiao-Mei or Angela Hewitt, on one side, and Loenhardt or (the young) Gould, on the other, can be labelled as "indellectually lazy" in any way. On the other hand, the arbitrary (in one or the other way) view of choosing which Variations should be repeated on one hand and in which way (embellishments, ornamentations, modifications etc.) on the other may easily lead to the worst of the two worlds.

- Whether "we take all this too seriously", perhaps, particularly when we are dealing with live performances. I have contributed to the production of some small scale Chamber concerts, particularly in difficult and adverse circumstances (e.g. in Africa) and we (I and the players) have to make all kind of compromises not only on the program but mainly on the performance, sacrificing almost all the repeats, even if we consider that some of them were needed. However, on record, things are different. The recording session is the statement of a musician (in the case of a solo instrumental work) and a production team (recording company, producer and engineer at least) for the posterity (at least as long as the record will be accessible). It is going to be there to be examined, judged, used for further reference and for repeated listening as necessary. The fact that with streaming one can easily and quickly listen to various recordings does not change their original purpose and reason d'etre.

Finally, you should not regret if you find yourself tempted to return...here. For almost anyone in this forum, old or future members, you are and will be most welcome and a pleasure to communicate with. I will highly appreciate it, if I am honoured by a response from you, Chris.

Parla

Thanks to all (three) of you for the kind comments.

 

 

Your kind comments are appreciated! I suppose I must continue now!

 

Well, it seems that by and large we agree that overall timings of the Goldberg Variations are, for various reasons, not very informative about exactly what we are going to hear and about tempi of individual movements.  So I’ll leave that for now.

Much more contentious is the question of repeats and associated questions, such as how should repeats be played.

The first thought that came to mind here is what an exceptional work this is as regards repeats.  I can’t immediately think of any major single work in which so many repeats are called for. (I suppose if there is another, you will find it for us, Parla!).

Interesting that Camaron and Parla have opposite views on this. If I understand correctly, Camaron, with Brahms to back him up, considers repeats (in general) are less necessary for repeated hearing, and their main importance is for helping the listener with a work new to him (I could have done with a few repeats in some of Boulez’s music!).  The logic of this appeals to me too, but.....

.....On the other hand is it the case that a recording, being a document, should not omit repeats?  This I think is Parla’s view, and not only his, it does reflect current practice I suppose.

In this case I do find the logic odd, not least as with increasing numbers of recordings of works such as the Goldberg Variations, the notion of recordings as documents is surely in decline just as our pre-occupation with repeats is increasing.

I note your comment Parla about my claim of ‘intellectual lazines’.  I wasn’t intending to criticise any performer who chooses to take all repeats: the point is rather that performers are increasingly under ‘musicological’ pressure these days, and not only over repeats. 

What I really don’t understand is why, if repeats are desirable, they should be omitted in live performances, as still often happens.

For myself, I think that, putting logic aside, the judicious selection of repeats is enough especially in a work like this, which is after all a set of variations, not a suite of different movements.  Knowing what Bach would have done, as if we could, wouldn’t help very much. Actually, Bach does help in some of his works, by giving first- and second-time bars (for example the minuie in the first Partita for keyboard).

If repeats are to be played, how should they be done, and how much ornamentation, and what sort of ornamentations.  Enough from me! I’ll let someone else open that Pandora’s Box.

Chris

Chris A.Gnostic

Disclaimer: the first time I

Disclaimer: the first time I heard about Brahms’ take on playing repeats was in these forums from Jane. After that I’ve heard the same claim a couple more times but, although I looked for it, I’ve not found the original source, or Brahm’s exact words and the context in which he said them. I was obviously very happy when non less a music authority than Brahms confirmed my own view on this, but I’ll be even happier when I get proper confirmation!

Another disclaimer: the Goldberg Variations are, possibly, the single classical work that I’ve heard the most times. There was a time when I was fully obsessed by it. I regard it as the greatest single work for any sort of keyboard, ever, partly because I can’t think of any other that could claim that position, with Beethoven’s permission. I don’t say this for any particular reason.

So what about them?

As we know it is the 4th and last installment of Bach’s Clavier-Ubung or Keyboard Practice. The first one his keyboard partitas, the second his French Suite and Italian Concerto for the keyboard, the third a collection of organ works for the Church. Malcolm Boyd, in his volume “Bach” points out how the first three installments are full of symbology for the numbers 1, 2 and 3 respectively, and goes on to almos express surprise that the Golberg are not about the number 4. He seems to miss the point that the Goldberg are huge game on the numbers 2 and 3 (in the humble opinion of this member of the public).

This can be seen at multiple levels. The work consists of 32 pieces, each of which mirrors the overall plan by consisting in 32 measures. All pieces are binary in design, meaning that they consist in two parts, each having 16 measures. Each part (but more clearly the first ones, the second parts being freer in this respect) can be, themselves, sub-divided into halves, 8, 4, 2 measures that correspond to partial modulations, phrases, themes or sections of the themes. So each single of the 32 pieces has, so to speak, a very marked modular designed.

The pieces are grouped into broader layout of three pieces, the last one being a canon. This produces both, a ternary and binary para-rhythm in the flow of the music. The whole 32 are divided by half or 16 pieces each, with the first one of the second group being, fittingly a French ouverture. But the 32 are also grouped into three distinctive groups, separated by the two amazing slow variations, no 15 and 25. The third group, after the Black Pearl, builds up a crescendo in the fashion of a coda.

Why do I say all this? Because I think it is relevant when considering repeats, since some of the above aspects will be highlighted depending on them. In the case when no repeats are observed the para-rhythms of groups of threes and the tree bigger groups of pieces are more evident, since the music flows faster and without interruptions. The last group, the coda/build-up/crescendo works so much better as one pieces follows another in quick succession. When ALL repeats are observes the modular character of the make-up of each piece is hugely highlighted which is, in my view, a good thing, but at the same time the arch-like features of the work get somehow understated and blurred, and the final “coda” loses power. Finally playing all repeats gives the Goldberg something of a monumental character. Whether this is good or not will come down to personal preference, I guess.

All the above without considering that playing all repeats, particularly in a slow version, can amount to “too much of a good thing”.

Any mixed solution will affect the above parameters in a different manner. Gould’s solution obviously stresses the 3-pieces pulse, but other solutions are thinkable and possibly will work just fine. It is a testament to the wealth of invention, to the complex multi-layered value of the work.
So the above is a look at the question of repeats from the point of view of what effects they produce in the listener (from my own experience), and not from a historical or philosophical perspective.

It would be nice if we could

It would be nice if we could edit our posts after publication, and get rid of typos....

c hris johnson wrote: ....the

c hris johnson wrote:

....the point is rather that performers are increasingly under ‘musicological’ pressure these days, and not only over repeats.

I think you're right. Something rather akin to the "political correctness" movement has taken a stranglehold on musical interpretation right across the board. I occasionally contribute to the radio 3 forum and you see this mentality all the time: a dogmatic sense of "this is right" and "that is wrong" - usually based on some piece of historical research. You can't use a harpsichord continuo because.........You can't add that ornament because........You can't have vibrato because.............Lots of smug rejoinders and patronising putdowns. It is, of course, the oldest fallacy in the book: the ever-tempting idea that one can outrun interpretation and eventually land on a hard fact. 

As for ornaments etc in the Goldberg Variations, I looked up my copy of the score to see what Kirpatrick had to say in the  preface (dated 1934). Answer: nothing. He had a great deal to say about the execution of particular ornaments, but nothing at all about the desirability or not of adding one's own. Likewise, he had nothing to say about repeats.  

Once again, however, I was awed by the quotation he prefaces the entire work by: "There is something in it of Divinity more than the ear discovers: it is an Hieroglphyical and shadowed lesson of the whole world, and creatures of God; such a melody to the ear, as the whole world, well understood, would afford the understanding. In brief, it is a sensible fit of that harmony which intellectually sojunds in the ears of God." Thomas Browne; "Religio Medici" (1643)

Repeats or not? Moving around Pandora's box.

This is mostly a reply to your post #45, Chris:

-I don't think the issue of repeats is so "contentious", since they are in the score. The whole work practically has to be repeated! Of course, I am not aware of another work of this size and duration with so many repeats, but, as music developed, forms and structure changed too, so that repeats were not that needed (e.g. Sonata Form has its own rules of where repeats are expected), unless the composer deemed them as necessary. This is also the key issue at least for any (or almost) musician, scholar etc. I talked to, i.e. the composer's wish. The prevalent view is that: if the composer notates a repeat, the performer has to observe it.

Of course, for a work of such a size and scope to observe all the repeats is a hell of a task, in many ways, and almost transform the final result as Camaron aptly underlined it.  However, the purists are adamant: If the composer, for whatever easons, wanted a repeat here or there, it has to be observed.

- In this vein, it is not exactly or only the "musicological pressure" or any "political correctness" in music that dictates this practice, but rather a personal choice based on the conviction that the composer's view on his work has to be respected before the performer puts his/her own view on how to perform the work. I do not believe that soloists such as Koroliov or Vinicour or Hewitt or Schornsheim act under the pressure of any producer or record label or any sort of musical political correctness. Besides, there are quite a few other soloists that choose to intervene in the work in various ways, not only by picking up which repeats to observe but also going further through embelishments, modifications etc.

- I cannot see who is going to be the authority in any sort of "judicious selection" of the repeats to be observed. Has the soloist or any other for that matter more authority than the composer to choose what to keep and what to leave out?

- As for the live performances, as I stated in my previous post, it is often, if not always, the issue of the audience, the occasion and the limitations of the particular performance that defines what eventually has to be done. If you know that you are dealing with a young and inexperienced audience as well as strict rules of the concert venue workers' unions about the duration of the concert, even a purist may have to swallow his/her principles. I faced this sort of situation in Africa, when I organised some small-scale Chamber concerts. The whole program had to be "tailored" to meet the needs and expectations of a quite unprepared audience, first of all, among other adversities and irregularities of the venue etc.

- As for how the repeats should be played, I leave the Pandora's box not yet opened. Let a soloist to do this fascinating but difficult to follow task.

Parla

parla wrote: I don't think

parla wrote:

I don't think the issue of repeats is so "contentious", since they are in the score. The whole work practically has to be repeated! Of course, I am not aware of another work of this size and duration with so many repeats, but, as music developed, forms and structure changed too, so that repeats were not that needed (e.g. Sonata Form has its own rules of where repeats are expected), unless the composer deemed them as necessary. This is also the key issue at least for any (or almost) musician, scholar etc. I talked to, i.e. the composer's wish. The prevalent view is that: if the composer notates a repeat, the performer has to observe it.

As a response, that is just too simplistic. It doesn't even engage with the basic question: it simply side-steps it, as if it wasn't there. In a way, it rather illustrates the point I was making about political correctness.

And backing it up with a ghostly consortium of scholars hardly makes it more credible.

Not so easy

Yes, I was going to reply in much the same vein.

Putting your argument into perspective Parla, we would have to accept that every repeat indicated by every composer always should be respected: and of course everything exactly as written, no double-dotting, no appoggiaturas, no ornaments except where written out, and so on.  As Jane says, this is the tyranny of the musicologist. I know Stravinsky wrote that to honour the spirit of a work it is necessary to honour the letter - but the issue here is just how far one should go.

 

Just in passing it might be worth mentioning that most of Bach's instrumental works do not survive in autograph anyway.

 

Also, an afterthought, I wonder what he would have thought of 1000 people sitting in silence in neat rows listening to his Goldberg Variations - or even more sitting in their living rooms with a CD in silence for one and a half hours.  Remember he performed his instrumental music with the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig in Zimmermann's Cafe!

Chris A.Gnostic

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