Please wait...

Hyperion Records

CDA66589 - Bach: Goldberg Variations

Recording details: January 1992
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Arthur Johnson
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: November 1992
Total duration: 78 minutes 54 seconds

'This disc captures all the warmth and naturalness which this great artist shows in live recitals' (BBC Music Magazine)

'A joy' (The Sunday Times)

'Sous les doigts volubiles au toucher perlé, les canons les plus ardus deviennent de galantes conversations empreintes de gravité … Une version extrêmement poétique et intimement habitée' (Répertoire, France)

Goldberg Variations
Aria  [4'02]
Aria da capo  [2'22]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The ‘Aria with diverse variations’, Bach’s own title for his unprecedented ‘Goldberg Variations’, was written in 1742 for (Count) Herman Karl von Kayserling (1696–1764), the Russian ambassador in Dresden. It was catalogued BWV988 by Wolfgang Schmieder and first published by Balthasar and Schmid in Nürnberg.

These variations became the fourth part of a keyboard grand design, Bach’s Klavierubüng. The collective title was borrowed from his Leipzig predecessor Johann Kuhnau and its remaining components comprised: part I, the six Partitas (1731); part II, including the ‘Italian Concerto’; and a third part (largely for organ) embracing the ‘St Anne’ Fugue and his ‘Giant’ Fugue based on the chorale ‘Wir glauben alle an einen Gott’.

Johann Sebastian was presented to the Count following a concert of 1736 at the organ of Frauenkirche in Dresden. Thereupon Kayserling helped appoint Bach as ‘composer to the Saxon Court’. The Count had also become mentor to Danzig teenage keyboard virtuoso Johann Gottlieb (Theophilus) Goldberg, a pupil of Bach’s eldest son, William Friedemann.

Bach’s biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote the first exhaustive text on the composer (published 1802) and he describes circumstances in which the ‘Aria and 30 Variations’ were envisioned: ‘The Count once said to Bach that he should like to have some pieces for his Goldberg which should be of such soft and somewhat lively character that he might be cheered up by them in his sleepless nights.’ Forkel goes on to say that Kayserling was so impressed with the Variations that he rewarded Bach with a golden goblet containing 100 louis d’or.

Many academics contend from this that the work was commissioned. Others say the evidence is inconclusive. A contemporary document, ascribed to one Johann Elias Bach (1705–1755), a son of J S Bach’s eldest cousin, describes an event of 1741 at which the composer played the entire work while demonstrating a new harpsichord for Kayserling and a group of dinner guests.

His ‘Air and 30 Variations’ were still with the publisher, though, when the Count expressed conspicuous delight Bach assured him that the moment his manuscript became available Kayserling would certainly receive a copy; hardly a likely scenario if the work had been commissioned. There is certainly no formal dedication in the original edition.

Within J E Bach’s same account we also find doubts about authorship of the work’s richly ornate opening Aria. Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, supposedly played it at her harpsichord as Johann Sebastian taught at Saint Thomas. And sometime earlier he had jotted it down in his ‘Notenbüchlein’. The more indisputable wisdom suggests that this 32-bar sarabande appeared in Anna Magdalena’s own notebook as early as 1725. Whatever its origins, they have little bearing on the consequent nature of Bach’s Variations.

Of far greater importance is how the structural form and design of the entire work proceeds from this Aria, though not from the melody but its accompanying 32-bar bass and harmony. In fact the only change in harmony is from major to minor, variations in the latter mode strategically placed to heighten variety. Cadences in D major (bar 16), E minor (bar 24) and G major (bar 32) distinguish the tonal path of the theme, and emerge in all variations except for those in the tonic minor (Nos 15, 21 and 25). And here E flat major replaces E minor at bar 24.

The earliest extant variations appeared before the mid-sixteenth-century. Spanish composer Antonio de Cabezón (c1510–1566) elaborated on a originating theme in his ‘Obras’, while Englishman Hugh Ashton (d1522) was thought to be the composer of ‘My Lady Carey’s Dompe’, a set of variations on a ground bass. Danish organist Dietrich Buxtehude (1637–1707) most probably wrote 32 variations titled ‘La Capricciosa’, taking as his Aria the song ‘Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben’.

This latter melody turns up in Bach’s Quodlibet (Variation 30), though the link may have occured by chance. It is interesting to speculate on how familiar Bach was with parallel works, but we have no compelling evidence to confirm that he knew the forward-looking Buxtehude creation.

In any event Bach’s monumental invention is arranged so that every third variation is a canonic one, ending with the Quodlibet based on two popular contemporary tunes. The first canon becomes Variation 3, the last Variation 27. In rounding off his structure Johann Sebastian may have recalled the annual Bach family reunions when quodlibets were frequently sung.

Between each third Variation comes a duet, usually extrovert in nature, and a three-part invention or fugue. It follows that the work has nine canons; the first composed on the minor and successive canons built on a larger interval. The two central canons, at the fourth and the fifth are inverted; the final canon, at the ninth, has its own bass and no third voice. Yet frequently the two canonic parts appear alongside a bass obligato and a three-voice variation results.

Intervening variations are contrapuntally complex though they share the same harmonic framework. Those preceding each canon are largely rapid toccatas. The non-canonic variations also include fughettas plus three and four-part passages. We therefore have a sequence of canons, three-part inventions or fugues and duets.

With their monothematic and wholly contrapuntal genesis, the ‘Goldberg Variations’ undoubtedly pave the way for Bach’s final keyboard works—the Musical Offering, ‘Von Himmel hoch’ Variations (BWV769) and The Art of Fugue.

Charles Rosen notes: ‘The elegance of the Goldberg Variations is its glory: it is the most worldly of Bach’s acheivements, with the Italian Concerto … essentially a creation of the comic spirit, it also contains some of the most moving passages that Bach ever wrote.’

During the 1930s Tovey had spoken of the Variations in fulsome and comparative terms: ‘Until Beethoven wrote his Waldstein Sonata’, he commented, ‘the (Goldberg) Variations were the most brilliant piece of sheer instrumental display extant. No other work by Bach himself, or by Domenico Scarlatti, not even any concerto by Mozart or any earlier work of Beethoven could compare with it for brilliance.’

The question of repeats has for long been the subject of lively debate. Similarly it has occasioned performances of widely-contrasting length and intellectually diverse standpoints. As LPs flourished, a need to discard many repeats became essential. The demand for single-disc releases (approximately 60 minutes playing time) was a powerful dictat. For performance purposes concert managements were wary of ninety-minute programmes without intermission.

There are those who contend that the truest diversity of the Goldberg Variations is only realized by observing all repeats as indicated textually througout the work. In most such performances repeats are performed with significant embellishments. Alternatively the articulation or dynamics may be varied with a new approach to structural relationships and expressive potentialities in each repeated variation.

Says Rosen: ‘While it is possible to ornament repeats of dances in the early suites, it is far more difficult to find a varied ornamentation for repeats in the Goldberg Variations that would not seem intrusive, so much do the original ornaments seem an indissoluble part of the conception of the melodic arcs.’ Many performers steer a middle course. In the present recording Tatiana Nikolayeva has chosen to omit repeats in variations 7, 11, 13, 15, 25 and the final Aria.

At the outset we hear the Aria; the G major Sarabande 3/4 from ‘Anna Magdalena’s Notebook’ (see above). This has an elaborate treble line, already a variation above the bass. Tovey observed of the Aria: ‘Its phrasing is as uniform as a chess-board; and if its harmonies had not a one-to-one correspondence with each variation, the form would be lost.’

Variation 1 3/4 is a duet with a quaver figure in the left hand, a semiquaver in the right, and the two interchanged. Rosalyn Tureck sees it as ‘an archway’ to the subsequent unfolding of Bach’s vast, expressive structure. With Variation 2 2/4 Bach introduces a delicate three-part cantabile; the upper parts pursuing a imitative dialogue, at variance with the bass line.

Variation 3 becomes the first of Bach’s canons; his canon on the unison 12/8. A trio with even-handed upper parts; these voices cross paths and through the bass its harmony is kept in motion. A constant overlapping of entries characterizes the ensuing four-part 3/8 fugal discourse with a sole three-note figure and its inversion.

The next, extrovert 3/4 duet called for two keyboards ‘a 1 Clav’ and ‘a 2 Clav’ as Bach originally dictated (Balthasar and Schmid) in his reference to the seperate manuals. A bouyant variation with frequent crossing of hands.

Variation 6. At the Canon on the second 3/8 we are on serene territory while upper discords resolve naturally to a third against a striding bass.

There follows a thematic duet 6/8; Bach’s sole variation in the manner of a binary gigue; commonly an animated fourth movement of the classical French-style suite.

Variation 8—yet another duet 3/4, originally assigned to the second manual. The first pair of statements are eventually inverted.

Bach’s ‘Canon in the third’ 4/4 is an essay in consonance with the bass more unconstrained, yet still making regular reference to the original harmony.

Variation 10 is a four-part fughetta 2/2. The four-part bass theme reminds us plainly of Bach’s harmonic starting point.

More outwardly virtuosic duet writing 2/2 characterizes Variation 11.

With the Canon in the fourth 3/4 entries are re-ordered and themes capriciously inverted in the latter half. Here the inversion is as clear and expressive as its original form. Bach must have smiled inwardly at his tacit, jestful approach to the prevailing formal structure.

In his embellished aria for Variation 13 Bach proceeds 3/4 with a rich, lyrical upper statement and the lower accompanying voices doubled; its style is ornamental throughout.

The 14th Variation is an outgoing duet calling for dazzling fingerwork 3/4. Each of four statements is eventually inverted.

With the Canon in the fifth and inversion 2/4 the work has deepened and a more elegiac note appears. This more sober, strongly emotional, chromatic writing finishes not on the conventional tonic, as one might expect, but on the fifth; ascending as one commentator remarks ‘into silence’.

Variation 16 is a bold, massive, French-style overture 2/2, still in binary form and generally regarded as Bach’s preparatory nod toward part two of the Aria and Variations. In strict form, as introduced by Lully (1685), the variation opens with dotted rhythms and ends with an accelerated fugue, in this instance the 3-part fughetta 2.

A straightforward yet highly complex duet 3/4 forms Variation 17.

It is followed by Bach’s Canon in the sixth 2/2. As the canonic parts move in sixths with the pause of a minim, accents of the upper parts are reversed. Resulting suspended discords give variation 18 a distinctive harmonic ‘thumbprint’. The polyphony is further ‘clarified’ and the Variation’s original bass also evident within the canonic lines.

In the trio 3/8 of Variation 19 brief figures (quaver and semiquaver) are periodically interchanged as the Variation progresses.

Bach’s duets become increasingly virtuosic as Variation 20 demonstrates. This one 3/4 has fast semiquaver triplets in two of its three sets of figures.

Canon in the seventh. A gentle, contemplative mood 4/4 is established as the closely-spaced parts succeed one another.

Variation No 22 is a four-part fugue 2/2; its guileless motif builds up with inexorable, structural splendour to full, ringing chords.

An exuberant, comic duet 3/4 with dashing double third and double sixth figures; Variation 23 includes tongue-in-cheek mordents and sobriety is cast to the winds.

Canon in the octave 9/8. This rural theme and answer proceeds with an aura of timelessness, while the melody moves to adjacent notes.

Variation 25: this highly charged G minor Variation 3/4 is a powerful, profoundly tragic utterance. A further embellished aria: the brilliant, chromatic bass structure and the unusually specific treble melody interact with unsettling intensity, almost threatening tonal stability.

Bach combines both duet and trio 3/4 in his 26th Variation. A two-part Sarabande is woven around with coursing triplet figurations.

Here, with the final Canon in the ninth 6/8 the bass is silent; the mood relaxed.

Both No 28 3/4 and the following Variation anticipate the work’s conclusion. Here the part-writing is supplanted in part by complex two-part embellishments. Karl Geiringer notes that this Variation and No 29 appear to anticipate a nineteenth-century style of keyboard writing.

With the penultimate Variation excitement is further heightened in chord sequences and fleet-fingered one-part passages.

Variation 30. At this point we might reasonably expect to discover a canon at the 10th. Instead Bach confounds and delights with his Quodlibet, a divertissement on popular tunes, rounding off the work in a genuine mood of humour and congeniality. It recalls the social fun enjoyed by the Bach family and their friends. The principal quodlibet tunes are German folksongs: ‘I have not been with you for so long’ and ‘Cabbage (Kraut) and turnips (Ruben) have driven me away’. The German saying ‘Durcheinander wie Kraut und Rüben’ can also mean ‘in complete confusion’ and some commentators believe this more idiomatic translation is clear evidence of Bach’s own (intentional) hearty laughter when recollecting the complexity of all that precedes his quodlibet.

Beneath the fugal treatment of these folk tunes Bach returns to his original bass. In doing so he leads listeners back to that generating Aria, the life source from whence these encompassing Variations stemmed and to which they now return. Finally, via immeasurable complexities, their wellspring is enhanced and re-invested with a profound, affirmative sense of renewal. For many listeners these closing sequences are the work’s most surpassing.

Howard Smith © 1992

   English   Français   Deutsch