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.
In 1977 the scientist and broadcaster Carl Sagan was chair of the committee that selected music from around the world to send into deep space on the Voyager probes. It was an eclectic playlist including, among others, Chuck Berry, Gamalan, and three pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. Asked about their choices Sagan said, “I could have sent just Bach, but that would have been showing off”.
I remembered those words as I watched a short documentary accompanying this year’s Brecon Baroque Festival. In it, Horatio Clare, a son of the Black Mountains and the author of a book about Bach says, “There are so many things about the human species that are flawed, or difficult or wrong, but you listen to Bach and you realise those people who say we are made of stars and those who say we have God in us, they are right”.
The Goldberg Variations were composed around 1741, towards the end of Bach’s career. Legend has it they were written for the harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to sooth his insomniac patron, Count Keyserling. More recent scholarship suggests they were a rebuff to those who claimed the 55-year-old’s music was old fashioned and badly out of date.
They remain among his most enduring works. Originally written for the harpsichord most modern recordings are played on the piano, but over the years the Variations have been reinterpreted by flautists, cellists, harpists, saxophonists, organists, guitarists, jazz trios, string trios and banjo players, albeit with varying results. So you could be forgiven for approaching something called ‘The Goldberg Variations Reimagined’ with some trepidation. In reimagining baroque and classical works, some composers have left their mark more heavily – and less subtly – than others.
Thankfully, that’s not the case with this, a collaboration between Rachel Podger’s Brecon Baroque ensemble and the harpsichordist and arranger Chad Kelly. It’s the only performance in this year’s festival, recorded “as live”, as they say in the industry, before the return of tighter Covid restrictions across Wales.
Kelly’s arrangement, for nine period instruments – including the harpsichord – is performed in the south transept of Brecon Cathedral, a grand but intimate setting for Bach’s most contemplative work. There’s an irony in using a solo piece to bring musicians together at a time when so many are isolated, but it works.
To his credit, Kelly gives the harpsichord a relatively minor role, allowing the strings and woodwinds to take centre stage, either as soloists or in elegantly arranged sonatas and trios. Only in the twenty-ninth and penultimate variation does he allow the keyboard a moment of virtuosic fireworks.
This variety of textures, from the violone’s earthy depths to the airy daintiness of the flute, allows us to hear Goldberg afresh. The aria is one of the most well-known pieces of baroque music, thanks in no small part to cinema’s most famous cannibal, but here, in its final rendition, each instrument brings something new without corrupting what makes it quintessentially Goldberg and quintessentially Bach.
The timing of this year’s Brecon Baroque was perfect. Though they couldn’t have foreseen Wales’ two-week “firebreak” lockdown, the opening night Zoom discussion between Rachel Podger and Chad Kelly began only an hour after the nation’s pubs and restaurants temporarily closed their doors.
When asked to review the festival I wasn’t sure if I should focus only on the main performance, leaving the opening night discussion and documentary for the regulars and aficionados, but I’m glad I didn’t. Podger and Kelly’s conversation places the arrangement in context, and taught me one or two things I didn’t know about the composer. Despite the audio-visual limitations of Zoom there is something very moving in hearing them perform pieces by both J.S. and C.P.E. Bach, Podger from her own home and Kelly from what appears to be the stage of Munich’s National Theatre, home of the Bavarian State Opera. Starved as we still are of live performance these low-res, lo-fi moments have acquired a certain poignancy.
During the performance of Goldberg I was glad to hear ambient sounds between each variation; pages being turned, musicians moving around the space. As the composer John Cage rightly pointed out, these unscored interventions are an integral part of live music. Edit them out for the sake of neatness and something vital is lost.
It’s possible that virtual performances will be the norm for quite some time, but while we can only hope next year’s Brecon Baroque is live in every sense, this year has given festivals of all sorts an opportunity to become accessible to an even wider audience.
Introducing his “reimagining” of Bach, Chad Kelly mentions the rather flowery dedication on the original score, for what was then called a ‘Keyboard Exercise’ (the Goldberg moniker came later). Translated into English, it reads, “Being composed for music lovers for the refreshment of their spirits.”
Those seeking spiritual refreshment (and in 2020, who isn’t?) will be pleased to learn that Brecon Baroque Festival is available online until January 31st 2021.
For more information on Brecon Baroque Festival 2020 and to purchase event tickets, visit their website here.
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David Llewellyn is a novelist and dramatist. As well as his four novels for Seren he has written scripts for the BBC and several short stories. David lives and works in Cardiff. His most recent novel A Simple Scale was shortlisted for the Polari Prize 2019.