goldberg variation strategies

For dealing with the Goldberg variations, I believe, one has to devise a few strategies. Too many people have told me the same story: ‘I worked really hard, but to play them in concert… well it went okay… I guess…’

I just don’t want ever to go there. I love these pieces (No, I love many of them really a lot and I very much like almost all of them). I refuse to let my appreciation of this work, which conveys so many emotions, perfumes, and which triggers so many memories (or sensations that seem like memories), be soaked in adrenaline.

Why not work on these pieces in true and complete rest? It is a revelation. Even the yet-to-be-mastered technical challenge of a difficult place becomes a piece of beauty. It is quite amazing how this choice of ‘rest’ changes the mindset.

I can hoist a whole of Bach’s Partitas that has been slumbering for a few years, back into the daylight in the following fashion: retrace fingerings, rework a few timings, revisit a run or two, dissect and put together the final movement – tomorrow another go, next week a recap, and hey.

Not so with the Goldbergs. I try and retry hand placements, try it slower again so it feels good (hey that sounds better too), play one hand alone, the other hand alone, both together (ouch) – a bit from the second half to explore technical challenges (turned around between the hands) from the first half, back to the first half, let it soak in for a few minutes and so on. I can fiddle on three bars for hours. It is heavenly.

The cracking of the technical code of the cross-hand sections is a very personal matter. Some don’t seem to find such passages much more difficult than other passages – I do. I had to understand that my ears fooled me and went together with the wrong hand, as soon as they crossed (a good solution is often to assign one hand to be the boss of a technical operation, no matter how difficult the part of the other hand might be. A logical choice for most people would be the right hand). I also learned that often a problem cannot be solved until one, so to speak, has heard enough of the passage in question for the time being: the music is so inspiring that the mind lingers time and again, and refuses to solve the technical part of the problem. It is actually fun to find out all this. It is no fun at all to have to realize the complexity of these pieces with an upcoming concert date nagging at the back of ones mind.

That is one reason why I do not yet perform the Goldberg variations in concert. The other is that they are in fact quite unpresentable. If one plays them with all the repeats, the concert lasts forever. If one omits the repeats, they pass by in a flash. If one plays some repeats, well, they partly last forever and partly flash by, and we get the worst of both deals out of it. If one plays only some of the variations, the purists will be outraged, while the keyboard aspirants among the audience will make wise cracks about what the performer isn’t able to master. I would like to play them all (whether this was Bach’s intention or not.), with all the repeats, and actually please my audience with this. Some day.

Some play the Goldberg variations as if they are part of the palette of a modern coffee bar. This cup better with hazelnut or cinnamon? Want to add a little vanilla syrup after the repeat? A dollop of creamy trills to go? This hand crossing section in decaf? I agree that this kind of eclecticism can have its charm in some music, and I also agree that the post-romantic awe for great names and unspoiled text renderings has little to do with Baroque embellishment practice and improvisatory fantasy. But in these pieces, varying too much within a variation doesn’t really do it for me.


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One Response to “goldberg variation strategies”

  1. Thomas D Says:

    You could do like Rachmaninov with his Corelli variations: whenever you hear coughs from the audience, skip a repeat. In case of whispering, skip a whole variation. That should calibrate the length to the public’s attention span…

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