JS Bach: The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

Andras Schiff (piano)
As a pianistic appendix to Andras Schiff’s four Bach concerts with the Philharmonia Orchestra, in ’Bach year’ there was only one possible work that could begin the latest Harrods’ recitals – JS’s immense cycle of thirty variations that enshrine the name of Goldberg, Count Keyserlingk’s harpsichordist who played Bach’s pieces to his insomniac master. Let’s not worry whether this magnum opus sent the Count to sleep or entertained him during his restless hours; the Goldbergs’ greatness has risen above such domesticity. However, I have a problem… I don’t think BWV 988 is such a great work!
I’m not about to challenge the Goldbergs’ supremacy, but I would suggest that the very diversity of the thirty pieces is its undoing. Over Schiff’s, all repeats observed, 75 minutes (with the same repetitiveness, Tureck takes 90 or so on her recent DG recording) I got lost! I mean, I didn’t perceive a structural ground-plan that goes from A-Z as is apparent in, say, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations or in the, shorter, sets on Handel and Paganini from Brahms.
I think it’s all down to an expectation that this music doesn’t deliver – this isn’t a through-composed set of commentaries on a theme but one which tries to find as much vicissitude as possible. How then can the links weld into one chain? OK, there is something of a connection in that the sections follow, more or less, the pattern of canon and variation… yet some of these worlds are so different.
Anyway, Schiff’s conception and realisation was obviously magnificent, if a tad finicky I thought. His virtuosity, especially in the brilliant cross-hands sections, is not to be questioned. Yet I thought him rather aloof, too consciously trying to take us somewhere. I stayed in my seat (next to the local eccentric whose fingers were as active as Schiff’s!) pondering on this music’s structure and direction. Individual variations are as great as anything Bach wrote for the keyboard, and I’m happy to subscribe to that, but as a whole I think the Partitas and Suites offer more.
I’m also inclined to think that Schiff could have been less reverential and more keenly imaginative, more lyrical, more rhetorical, more personal in expression. Also, do we need every repeat observed? I do feel that those variations which are not of the finest only need their two sections played once, the greatest ones, of course, should be played twice. Surely though the ’theme’ itself needs only one airing before and aft the variations themselves? On this occasion Schiff’s four-time traversal seemed pedantic.
If the Goldbergs are a problem piece for me, I shall keep working on it. Meanwhile, I must report that the capacity audience was enthralled by the music and Schiff’s playing, and very enthusiastic in its applause. It can be a lonely business this reviewing.

 

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