J. S. Bach
Goldberg variations, BWV 988
F1 0136 *2CD* 
TT- 154 min., released 10/2005
All three instruments used in the recording were built by Martin Kather in Hamburg. An instrument built in 2004 and based on an original of 1761 by David Tannenberg, settled in Pennsylvania, was chosen as the lower manual for the pair of clavichords. On it stood a small instrument that is a copy (2002) of a clavichord of 1787 built by Christian Gottlob Hubert of Ansbach. The two-manual harpsichord completed in 2004 is a copy of a model by François Etienne Blanchet of 1733 in the depositary of the Château de Thoiry.
For performers who have fallen in love with the music of Bach, the Goldberg Variations are a great challenge. Every such performer without exception will tell you so. But what makes then so extraordinary and distinctive compared to other great pieces or cycles by Johann Sebastian Bach? Very probably it is the multiplicity of interpretative possibilities that they offer. The grandiose set of thirty variations on a theme (Bach chose an Aria also to be found in his Book for Anna Magdalena Bach of 1725), is above all an incredibly rich resume of superbly realised, perfectly thought out techniques of composition. The set includes for example a series of canon treatments in different intervals, and a highly sophisticated version of a Baroque dance, while other variations present traditional compositional forms such as the ricercar, and so on. All the techniques and skilled compositional approaches, however, are filled and at the same time transcended by the unbounded freedom of a great spirit. Bach here gave full rein to his inexhaustible musical imagination. This means that the range of potential interpretations open to performers is incomparably wider than is the case for example, in various preludes and fugues or pieces composed in suite form and so forth.
This unique multiplicity of meanings is probably one of the reasons why the Goldberg Variations has been recorded so extraordinarily often. I had two motives for adding my own recording to the innumerable others. It was partly the chance to use beautiful instruments from the workshop of Martin Kather, who lives and works in Hamburg, and partly the chance to record not just on the harpsichord but on clavichords as well. We know that Bach loved clavichords, had them at home and taught on them. The academic literature also tells us that organists who practiced on the clavichord sometimes took off the top panel of the larger clavichord and placed a smaller clavichord on top of it, so as to obtain a second “organ“ manual. For me the chance to make a double recording of one piece was an unusual opportunity to choose different interpretative angles. Each version required not only a different tempo, but often a surprisingly different approach in terms of character. Phrasing, articulation, treatment of accents and the acoustic differentiation of important and less important notes – all this is derived from the specific properties of the instruments. The advantage of the harpsichord is the resonant and transparent sound, and after all Bach entrusted the variations to the two-manual harpsichord on the title page. The advantage of the clavichord is the possibility of rich dynamic, timbre and intonational nuancing of every note, both in the horizontal and the vertical line. But notes struck on the clavichord sound for a much shorter period, and the instrument is generally dynamically far weaker than the harpsichord. On this CD, for that matter, this ratio has been to some extent maintained, deliberately.
Thanks to Bach’s first biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel we know a charming anecdote about the Russian envoy, the Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, who apparently suffered from insomnia. He therefore employed the Johann Gottlied, a harpsichordist of talent or indeed genius, to play to him during his sleepless nights. Supposedly Bach composed the extremely long variation form to order, to help the Count get to sleep. In fact, of course, listening to variations is so exciting that we would be more likely to go to sleep hearing a series of thematically distinct pieces, while Bach’s treatment of a single theme leads precisely to the greatest possible richness of musical form and literally compels us to listen. Evidently the count was far from bored, since he rewarded Bach very generously for the excellent work, giving him a golden goblet filled with a hundred louis d’or.
The listener with a sensitive ear and heart will identify many different levels of expression and unusual corners in the Goldberg Variations. For my own part I find this composition is more than anything else a testimony to the greatness of the composer and at the same time a persuasive and unique musical representation or picture of our earthly life in general, in all its joys, euphoria, victories and somersaults and on the other side in its grief and pains. Nor did Bach forget the most beautiful spice of life, which is humour. It is not for nothing that he embodied the melodies of two wanton songs of the tim in the thirtieth variation – Quodlibet.
Here I shall also like to bring up the question of the performance of the repeats, which in Bach’s time were usual with the variations form. The Goldberg Variations is a work so long that it makes huge demands on the listener’s concentration if all the repeats are respected, and so I am not convinced that it is absolutely necessary to repeat every single part. In this respect I am willing to meet today’s listener halfway and ignore the requirement for complete symmetry that stems from a likewise legitimate, but perhaps rather narrow-minded or perhaps mechanical view of Baroque music. It is certainly hard to decide which passages should be repeated and which not, but this is not an insoluble problem, First of all we must bear in mind the proper function of repetition in Baroque music. It was there to make the form easier to grasp but at the same time it offered an opportunity to utter again what had been uttered already but most probably with a variation of expression, while in some cases it offered a chance for variation on the utterance itself, even if only in a small detail, for example a melodic ornament. The decision on which part to repeat for the reasons given and which not depends on the performer’s subjective but wholly legitimate view of the structure of the musical form. In any case, in my two versions, harpsichord or clavichord, you can find kindred or similar moments, and completely opposite approaches, in relation to repeats as well.
We could sum up that Bach’s masterwork is an extraordinary adventure for both performer and listener. Bach himself was certainly well aware of the timeless importance of his Goldberg Variations, since it was with this opus that he crowned the great keyboard cycle, one that he considered part of his musical testament. This is the fourth volume of what is known as the Klavierubung (Keyboard Exercises). It came out in print while he was still alive under the title of Aria with Diverse Variations, in 1741 (or 1742) at the publishing house of Balthasar Schmid in Nuremberg.
Today people with a serious interest in musical history and theory can take advantage of a huge range of scholarly analyses of every piece Bach ever wrote, especially in the case of such popular works as the Goldberg Variations. The less weighty but “insider” views of performers, all the more informed for their experience, provide a lively counterpoint to the scholars. One witty example is András Schiff, with his delightful initiatory “walk” through the individual variations. As a pianist, he is a great “fan” of performances of the Goldberg Variations on the modern grand piano. But to be honest, is this music really suitable for large halls? Is it understood by crowds expecting a virtuoso and amazing tempos? I would say no. It seems to me that the most essential thing for the understanding of the meaning and sense of the work is humble quietness. And therefore, despite all my admiration for the beautiful versions from the hand of Glenn Gould and others, my favourite instruments remain those appropriate to Bach’s time - the harpsichords and clavichords.
More about instruments: Clavichords
A large instrument built in 2002 and based on an original of 1761 by the organ-maker David Tannenberg, (whose parents came from Moravia) living at the end of the 18th century in Pennsylvania, was used for the recording of the Goldberg Variations as the first manual. It is what is known as the unbound type of clavichord with a range of six octaves CC – c4. On top of it stood a small instrument with a range of 4? octaves AA-e3, which is a copy of a clavichord of 1787 built by Christian Gottlob Hubert of Ansbach. This copy, completed in 2004, is from the private collection of Diez Eichler. Harpsichord
The two-manual model completed in 2004 is a copy of an instrument built by François Etienne Blanchet of 1733, in the depositary of the Château de Thoiry not far from Paris. Range EE – f3, dispositions 8´, 4´ (lute) on the bottom manual and 8´ (lute) on the top manual.
All three instruments are tuned to 415 Hz (a1) using unequal temperament; the fifths F-C-G-D-A-E-B are a little narrower, B-F#-C#-G# pure, G#-Eb-Bb-F slightly wider.