Nigel Jarrett reviews a performance of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations by pianist Angela Hewitt at St. David’s Hall.
Angela Hewitt (piano)
J.S.Bach: Goldberg Variations (BWV 988)
St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 8 April 2018
Let’s talk about pianos. Someone inhabiting a parallel universe and with both foresight and hindsight would have viewed with barely-suppressible excitement the development of keyboards at one stage of musical history. When plucked strings were giving way to hammered ones with the means of sustaining notes and more subtley dampening them, what had been written for the earlier instruments began to be assessed as candidates to be played on their modern counterparts. While purists wished to maintain a separation of parts, those less narrow-minded argued, say, that Beethoven in writing for the fortepiano would have embraced the modern concert grand and maybe written a different kind of music for it. Playing music composed for harpsichord on one is a slightly different prospect. For a start, it is tempting, nay irresistible, to clothe the music in the contents of the grand’s sonic wardrobe. But, maybe, the composers might have aspired to such déshabillé in the first place, perhaps with an inkling, when the new was coming in, that their compositional outlooks and styles were probably inhibited by the instruments available to them. This is all a preamble to one outstanding example of such a transference: the playing on a grand piano of J.S.Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which was composed for harpsichord. But it applies to any of Bach’s keyboard music. The Goldberg is an eighty-minute marathon of thirty variations on a theme, which is repeated at the end. There are other repeats, most of which were included here.
The first important recording-era pianist to hoist Bach on to the Bechstein, as it were, was the Canadian Glenn Gould. It was invigorating at the time, even though Gould’s eccentricities – engineers couldn’t get him to stop humming along with the music – later mitigated against his authority. Another Canadian (it must be something in the air) with a more persuasive argument for the transfer is Angela Hewitt. Her first recording of the Goldberg is now a classic, and she delivers the work in live performance with little diminution of its quality and insights. She first recorded it in 1999 and did it a second time three years ago, again with, if anything, more risk-taking and depth of feeling. For it’s no longer a question of a piece of harpsichord music played on a piano, but the contrasts that result from different makes of piano. She now favours her own Fazioli instrument, fast becoming the piano of choice among musicians looking for something that doesn’t ‘bite back’ as uncompromisingly as a Steinway concert grand. But at this recital, she performed on the St David’s Hall Steinway, treating it as one might a guest given a free hand to match its properties with acoustics that conductors rave about but which all too rarely get the chance to show how accommodating they can be for a solo recital. But there are reservations.
Angela Hewitt’s Goldberg was a cornucopia, its reflections and eruptions and heady twists essayed almost in narrative mode and making their way steadily to the extended aria of Variation 26 as though that were its goal, which in many ways it is. This is a progression already mapped with variety by the composer in the nine canons of every third variation (where he ups the interval at which the duplicated tune makes its entry) and the various musical forms sandwiched between (nine arabesques, thirteen dances, two further arias, a French overture, and a short, truncated fugue). Angela Hewitt interpreted this assortment with rigour and clear differentiation. But she was most compelling in the poise she adopted to preserve the work’s original character alongside its part-transformation as a piano piece. This she did with circumspect shading and colour and, in the arabesques, formidable cross-handed swirls. To apply impressive pianism to this work was an achievement that involved using the pedals judiciously and emphasising those parts of it that a piano could enhance. That brings us back to the minor-mode of Variation 26, a deeply-probing aria lumped in with the dances and played here with pavane-like dignity. Her interpretation confirmed the musicologist Alfred Einstein’s view of its being just one of many instances in Bach’s music that reflected the sorrow of a man whose life of multiple issue was blighted by loss.
But Echo answers: Hang on. The original Goldberg is fugitive. The surviving score is for a one- or two-manual harpsichord. As was common at the time, the composer’s lack of specific marks of interpretation – how loud, how fast, how to shape – leaves the issue of understanding what he intended wide open. This is particularly true of transcription. The re-modelling of the Goldberg for concert harp carried out by Catrin Finch not long ago was an attainment in terms of epic and concentrated performing, but again we were presented with almost a new work rather than a new way of playing an old one. Perhaps paramount, and despite the dazzling passages, is the necessity of surroundings to match the Goldberg’s core intimacy. Alone on a concert-hall platform at an instrument with so much potential for dynamism and splendour, a pianist must be tempted to gild the lily. It’s probably inevitable. So was the standing ovation on this occasion for Hewitt’s elucidation of Bach or for her display of how good (and more acceptable) he sounds on an instrument with which concertgoers are familiar? Would they have turned out for a harpsichord version of the work? The counter to all scruples, of course, is that whatever one does to him, Bach’s humanity survives in some shape or form. He could have been, and once was, left to languish as a contrapuntalist of interest only to connoiseurs. On a Steinway, the worst one can do to him is submit his greatness to an idiom he could only have imagined and would probably have embraced.
You might also like…
David Llewellyn reviews the main feature of Brecon Baroque Festival 2020, a collaborative reimagination of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations created by Chad Kelly.
Nigel Jarrett is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He’s a former daily-newspaperman and a regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review, Jazz Journal and Acumen poetry magazine, among others. He is also a poet and novelist. His latest story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published in 2016, as was his first novel, Slowly Burning. This year sees the publication of his short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy.