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Hyperion Records

CDA67305 - Bach: Goldberg Variations
View towards Dresden from Cossebaude (1745) by Johann Alexander Thiele (1685-1752)
AKG London / Staatsliches Museum, Schwerin

Recording details: September 1999
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: March 2000
DISCID: F4126620
Total duration: 78 minutes 18 seconds

'Beautifully co-ordinated Bach playing, with all voices colourfully defined and spontaneity as a constant virtue. In my view, she has never made a better CD. Strongly recommended' (Gramophone)

'Outstanding…Hewitt's disc, exquisite artistry commingling with infectious exhilaration gives me the most pleasure' (BBC Music Magazine)

'It is a remarkable achievement, arguably the best to appear on disc since Glenn Gould's second celebrated recording from 1981 … [It] is the sheer technical command of her playing, coupled with such elegantly supple musicianship, that makes the performance so compelling … Everything is right, everything is natural—this is Bach on the piano of the highest quality imaginable' (The Guardian)

'After five days of recording sessions last August, Angela Hewitt returned in the small hours of September 1 to give a complete "performance" for a few friends of the Bach's Aria with Diverse Variations. Fortunately, the engineers decided to keep the tapes rolling, for this, according to Hyperion's executive director, Ted Perry, is the "take" Hewitt and Hyperion decided to release. The resulting record is a miracle of music-making at its most instinctive and spontaneous. Even by Hewitt's exalted standards it is extraordinary: in the brilliant toccatas, she creates, with her amazing articulation, the illusion of the music being plucked by the modern piano's hammers; her virtuosity and joie de vivre in the fast variations—try 1, 14 and "the most dangerous of all the toccatas", No 20—take the breath away. She also penetrates the heart of the great 13th and 25th variations without false romantic sentiment. The reprise of the Aria at the close—after a majestic variation 29—is shattering. If you only buy one Bach album in this anniversary year, let it be this one. A desert-island disc!' (The Sunday Times)

'The most recent in a series of wonderfully compelling Bach recordings by pianist Angela Hewitt. She seems to do everything right … simply one of the best piano versions available' (Fanfare, USA)

'Hewitt is one of the very finest Bach interpreters around. She possesses all the mechanical skills needed to master the difficulties facing the soloist, but never loses sight of the humanity that is evident in every note … Playing of the highest order, and one of the finest recordings of this work you're ever likely to hear' (The Scotsman)

'This is as fine a version of Bach's inventive Goldberg Variations as there is' (Express)

Goldberg Variations
Aria  [4'12]
Aria da capo  [2'40]

This is very special. All of Angela Hewitt's Bach recordings to date have been made in Germany on her favourite piano and with her chosen producer, Ludger Böckenhoff. For this recording of the Goldbergs, a work for which she has especial reverence, Angela inspected several venues in Britain. Accordingly she and Ludger, the piano and piano technician Gerd Finkenstein, travelled from Germany to London's Henry Wood Hall where no fewer than five days were allocated to record the work. Finally satisfied artistically, Angela finished the recording at the end of the fifth day, after which she went home for a bath and something to eat. Everybody then went back to HWH in the middle of the night and recorded the whole thing again, without a break. After a few final adjustments in the editing room, that is the performance which appears on this disc.

All repeats are observed.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Throughout his years as Cantor of the St Thomas School in Leipzig (1723–1750), Johann Sebastian Bach had to struggle with the musical ignorance of his superiors to whom, upon taking up the post, he had pledged respect and obedience. The city council was apparently unable to appreciate the marvellous things Bach was doing for the musical life of Leipzig, and constantly denied him the improvements he requested and desperately needed. The situation became so frustrating for him that in October 1730 he wrote to his boyhood friend Georg Erdmann (at the time agent of the Emperor of Russia in Danzig) asking for help in finding another position. He told Erdmann that since taking up the directorship in Leipzig:

I find that the post is by no means so lucrative as it was described to me; I have failed to obtain many of the fees pertaining to the office; the place is very expensive; and the authorities are odd and little interested in music, so that I must live amid almost continual vexation, envy, and persecution; accordingly I shall be forced, with God’s help, to seek my fortune elsewhere.

We have no trace of a reply to this letter, and Bach remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life. He did, however, seek the title of ‘Court composer to the King of Poland and the Elector of Saxony’ by dedicating the Kyrie and Gloria of his B minor Mass to King Frederick Augustus in 1733. The title was eventually granted him in 1736, largely due to the intervention of Hermann Carl, Baron von Keyserlingk.

Count Keyserlingk (as he later became) was the Russian ambassador to the court of Dresden, appointed by Catherine the Great. Music was his passion, and at his home in Neustadt he gathered around him some of the best instrumentalists of his day, among them a prodigious young harpsichordist named Johann Gottlieb (or Theophilus, which he preferred) Goldberg. Born in Danzig (Gdaîsk) in 1727, Goldberg studied with Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, in Dresden, but then was sent to Leipzig by Count Keyserlingk to study with Bach himself in the early 1740s. His fame as a virtuoso quickly spread, and it was recounted that he could read anything at sight—even if the score was upside down! Bach must have delighted in having such a pupil.

The circumstances under which the ‘Goldberg’ Variations came into being were passed down to us by Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel. In 1802 he wrote:

The Count (Keyserlingk) was often sickly, and then had sleepless nights. At these times Goldberg, who lived in the house with him, had to pass the night in an adjoining room to play something to him when he could not sleep. The Count once said to Bach that he should like to have some clavier pieces for his Goldberg, which should be of such a soft and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights. Bach thought he could best fulfil this wish by variations, which, on account of the constant sameness of the fundamental harmony, he had hitherto considered as an ungrateful task. But as at this time all his works were models of art, these variations also became such under his hand. This is, indeed, the only model of the kind that he has left us. The Count thereafter called them nothing but ‘his’ variations. He was never weary of hearing them; and for a long time, when the sleepless nights came, he used to say: “Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations.” Bach was, perhaps, never so well rewarded for any work as for this: the Count made him a present of a golden goblet filled with a hundred Louis d’ors. But their worth as a work of art would not have been paid if the present had been a thousand times as great.

Some musicologists don’t quite believe Forkel’s tale for several reasons. First of all, the work carried no dedication when it was published in 1742. Bach simply entitled it Keyboard Practice, consisting of an Aria with Diverse Variations, for the Harpsichord with 2 Manuals. Composed for Music Lovers, to Refresh their Spirits (as Glenn Gould said, ‘a very down-to-earth description of such a great work’). Secondly, Goldberg would have been only fourteen or fifteen years old at the time—but surely there were prodigies then as there are now. Had he not died at the age of 29, we might have known more about its inception. Finally, no gold goblet was mentioned in Bach’s estate, although there was a tobacco box of agate set in gold which was very highly valued. Whether or not it’s true doesn’t really matter. It remains a good story (and a good title!), and one which no doubt will forever be attached to this monumental work.

The Aria that Bach uses as a theme for his variations appears in the notebook of pieces he began collecting for his second wife, Anna Magdalena, in 1725. Until recently it was thought to have existed for at least ten years before Bach chose it as his theme, but musicologists now think it was written expressly for the purpose and copied into two spare pages of the notebook. This is largely irrelevant; what is important is its character and rhythm—that of a dignified, stately sarabande, full of tenderness and poise. It is highly embellished in the French manner—meaning that the ornaments are an essential part of the melodic line, not optional extras. Rather than the melody, however, it is the bass line, or more specifically the harmonies which it implies, that are used as a basis for the thirty variations which follow. Throughout we have the same overall harmonic structure of four 8-bar phrases (or 4-bar phrases depending on the time signature): the first establishes the tonic of G major; the second moves to the dominant; after the double bar (repeat) it moves from the dominant to the relative (E minor), increasing the tension, before returning home to the tonic in the final 8 bars (after which the second half is repeated). Three variations are in G minor, where E flat major is substituted for E minor, adding some light to the darker mode (except in the remarkable Variation 25 which remains sombre by passing through E flat minor).

On this solid base, Bach builds a magnificent edifice that is both beautifully proportioned and astonishingly varied. The variations are organized into groups of three, with every third variation being a canon. In these, the upper two voices engage in exact imitation, beginning at the unison in Variation 3, and moving up step by step so that Variation 27 is a canon at the ninth. They are among the most vocal in character of the variations, and are so ingeniously put together that we can listen to them without thinking of their construction, although that of course adds to our enjoyment and intellectual stimulation. Each group begins with a free variation (often akin to a dance but still very contrapuntal). The second of the set is a toccata for two keyboards, with the most brilliant variations belonging to this group. Here Goldberg would really have had the chance to show off his virtuosity.

Variation 1 sets the joyous tone that is characteristic of so much of this work. Both the leaps and the rhythm of the left hand in the first bar are motives for joy in Bach’s music (as in the A flat major Prelude from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier). This two-part invention already gives us a taste of the hand-crossing that will be such a feature in later variations. The one exception to the pattern of toccata in second place is Variation 2, which teases us at the beginning by almost being a canon. It is a simple three-part invention, similar to the Little Prelude in D major, BWV936, with two voices engaging in constant dialogue over a running bass. Perhaps Bach realized that we needed a bit more time to warm up before engaging in high jinks! Then comes the first of the canons in Variation 3—this one at the unison (the upper voices beginning on the same note, one bar apart). The time signature of 128 hints at a mood of pastoral simplicity with a touch of the dance. With the canonic voices being so close together, and played with the one hand, it is a challenge to distinguish them enough for the listener to be able to comprehend their constant crossings (this of course applies more to the piano than the harpsichord). In the first four bars the left hand sets out the harmonies simply and gracefully, but then gets more involved in filling out the texture.

A rustic-sounding dance in 3/8 time makes up Variation 4. The opening three notes constantly jump from voice to voice in playful imitation with syncopations adding extra interest. It sets us up perfectly for the first of the brilliant toccatas. Variation 5 uses the Italian type of hand-crossing, where one hand makes dangerous leaps over the other. The left hand is the first to have a go, soon followed by the right as Bach typically inverts the counterpoint. It is, as Wanda Landowska stated, ‘an outburst of irrepressible joy’. Before the next toccata we have a chance to calm down. Variation 6 is a canon at the second, and what better motive for that than a descending scale? It alternates beautifully between rising and falling, and the shadowing of the leader by the ensuing voice is not without tenderness.

Although the autograph manuscript of the ‘Goldberg’ Variations has been lost, we do have a copy of the original edition (published by Balthasar Schmid in Nürnberg) that is notated in Bach’s own hand (Handexemplar). As it was discovered as recently as 1974, only editions published after that date take into account the findings therein. Several tempo markings are added, in particular ‘al tempo di Giga’ for Variation 7. Presumably Bach wanted to guard against taking too slow a tempo, thus making it a siciliano or forlana. It is, in fact, a French gigue, very similar to the one in the French Overture, BWV831. Its dotted rhythms and sharp ornaments make it one of the most attractive of the variations. Technical difficulties resume in Variation 8, with some treacherous overlapping of the hands. This is hand-crossing in the French style where both are playing at once in the same part of the keyboard. On the piano this poses singular problems and requires great care if it is not to sound confused. As in all the toccata variations, switching the odd note or passage to the other hand from which it is written certainly helps, as long as the voice-leading is still absolutely clear. The rhythm of Variation 8 can also be confusing; without seeing the score, some people will hear the beginning in 6/8 instead of 3/4 time. It is perhaps best to slightly emphasize the beats to avoid being misled. The hands alternate between moving towards or away from each other—rather like some kind of technical study—with the crossing of the arms providing visual excitement. The next canon, Variation 9, is at the interval of a third. Beautifully lyrical, flowing yet unhurried, its expressiveness is supported by a more active bass line than in the previous canons.

Variation 10 is a fughetta in four parts—very genial in nature, and reminding me of the D major March from the Anna Magdalena Notebook, also marked ‘alla breve’ (now thought to be composed by Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel). More overlapping of the hands occurs in Variation 11, a gentle gigue-like toccata in 12/16 time which requires great delicacy. It makes use of crossing scales (which, even on one keyboard, must be seamless) and some capricious arpeggios and trills, the whole dissolving into thin air at the end. Then Bach gives us the first of the canons by inversion (where the second voice is in contrary motion to the first). Variation 12, a canon at the fourth, is also the first one where the voices reverse their leadership role after the double bar. I find something very regal in its character, and therefore think it shouldn’t be hurried.

This brings us to Variation 13—one of the most sublime and, I feel, something of an emotional turning-point in the work. If most of the preceding variations are fairly terrestrial, although wonderful in their dance-like rhythms, Variation 13 truly transports us for the first time. Its tender, cantabile melody, resembling a slow (but not too slow!) movement from a concerto, soars above the accompanying voices, using some violin figurations and two-note ‘sighs’ in the cadential bars. A few chromaticisms in the left hand towards the end serve only to enhance our state of bliss. Staying in the same part of the keyboard, but with the hands exchanging places, Bach wakes us from our dream with a sharp, cheerful mordent beginning Variation 14. This same mordent is then the sole feature of a passage which takes us down the full range of his keyboard (changing to an ascent after the double bar). We are so often told that all ornaments must be executed on the beat in Baroque music, but here Bach writes them out in full before the beat. So much for the rules! After this brilliant outburst, Variation 15 presents us with a canon at the fifth and the first of the minor-key variations. I think it very fitting that it is in contrary motion, as the downward movement, with its ‘sighing’ figures adopted from Variation 13, is very sorrowful, but its ascending counterpart brings hope. Bach was unable to accept total despair because of his deep religious faith, and this variation is a perfect example of how he expressed this in music. The tempo marking is ‘Andante’, and the time signature 2/4, so it must flow despite its sorrow. The bass line is a full participant in the drama, imitating the sighs and wide intervals of the upper voices. There is a wonderful effect at the very end: the hands move away from each other, with the right suspended in mid-air on an open fifth. This gradual fade, leaving us in awe but ready for more, is a fitting end to the first half of the piece.

The ‘Goldberg’ Variations are usually considered to be the fourth part of Bach’s Clavierübung (‘Keyboard Practice’), although he didn’t specify them as such. The first volume comprised the six ‘Partitas’, the second the ‘Italian Concerto’ and the ‘French Overture’, and the third various organ compositions along with the ‘Four Duets’. In each of these, a French overture figures prominently: as the opening of the Fourth Partita in D major; again as the opening of the work by that name in the second volume; and as the Prelude of the E flat major Prelude and Fugue for organ, known as the ‘St Anne’, in Part Three. In the ‘Goldberg’ Variations, as Variation 16, it ceremoniously opens the second half with great pomp and splendour. It is in two sections: the first—very grandiose with running scales, brilliant trills, and sharply-dotted rhythms—takes us as far as the dominant key in bar 16. After the repeat follows a faster, fugal section as is customary in a French overture. Here the texture is much more transparent but still very orchestral, and we have two quick bars of 3/8 for each bar of the original harmony.

Variation 17 is a spirited and light-footed toccata in which Bach obviously takes great delight in writing expressly for two keyboards. On the piano the hands are playing on top of each other for a lot of the time. He continues in a good-natured mood with Variation 18, a canon at the sixth. Much of this good nature is present in the bass line which skips happily about under the two canonic voices where suspensions are the name of the game.

Variation 19 is in the style of a passepied—a delicate, charming dance in 3/8 time. Different touches can be used to bring out the three motives to good effect, varying the voicing for the repeats. It gives the player a chance to relax before the most dangerous of all the toccatas, Variation 20. Here Bach is obviously writing for a performer who is totally fearless and in command of the instrument. It is not just a display of technique, however. The notes are nothing without the joy and humour that are present in abundance, especially when he engages in ‘batteries’ (a way of breaking chords) in bars 25 to 28. As is typical with Bach, often the most joyous moments are followed by a complete change in mood, and Variation 21 takes us back to the key of G minor with maximum effect. The expressiveness of this canon at the seventh is emphasized by the chromatic descent of the bass which, in the third bar, picks up the swirling opening motive of the canon. It is poignant to be sure (especially with the unexpected and wonderful F natural in the last bar), but should not be unduly slow. True pathos in the minor key is yet to come.

I always get a feeling of rebirth with the onset of Variation 22. The return to G major is partly responsible for this, but so too is the solidity of the four-part writing. Marked ‘alla breve’ and using much imitative dialogue in the style of a motet, it seems to begin a sequence which leads beautifully to the conclusion of the work. For someone who is intimately acquainted with the piece, the end is now in sight and we know where we have to go to get there. Bach really has fun with Variation 23, in which the hands engage in a game of catch-me-if-you-can, displaying various gymnastics along the way. They end up tumbling on top of each other (bars 27 to 30), ending their routine brilliantly together on the last chord! These flurries of double-thirds and -sixths are really pushing the limits of keyboard technique as it existed at the time, paving the way for future composers. Again we have this wonderful feeling of joy and delight not just in the music itself but also in its execution. After such antics, the canon at the octave in Variation 24 creates a beautiful sense of repose. It is a pastoral in 9/8 time and the only canon where the leading voice switches between the parts in the middle of a section (bars 9 and 24). The major third in the right hand of the last bar leads perfectly into the minor third in the left hand beginning the next variation. Between these two chords, however, there is a total change of atmosphere.

Variation 25 is, without a doubt, the greatest of all the variations, demanding the utmost in musicianship and expressiveness. Returning to the rhythm of the opening sarabande, Bach writes an arioso of great intensity and painful beauty in which the agonizing chromaticisms show that Romanticism is not far away. Famously called ‘the black pearl’ by Landowska, its slow tempo (marked ‘Adagio’ by Bach in his Handexemplar) makes it much longer than any other variation although it has the same number of bars. The ‘repeated note’ ornament at the beginning, which was often used by Bach for a jump of a sixth in impassioned music, is wonderfully expressive and very vocal, and was adopted by Chopin who used it repeatedly. The final descent of the melody ends with a clashing appoggiatura on the tonic, after which the tension is released. As with Bach’s greatest works in this vein (I think of the sarabande from the Sixth Partita, for instance), we feel that the external world must not intrude on this most private of moments.

The hardest thing to pull off in a complete performance of the ‘Goldberg’ is to gather up the energy and concentration needed for Variation 26 after emptying everything from inside yourself in Variation 25. With only a few seconds’ break, you are thrown into another virtuoso toccata where, for a lot of the time, the arms are crossed over each other. Retaining the sarabande rhythm, but of course much faster, Bach nevertheless writes two time-signatures: 18/16 for the running semiquavers and 3/4 for the accompanying chords, with 18/16 winning out in the end when both hands take off and run in the last five bars. The appoggiaturas on the second beat of the bar (which I add on the repeats) were found in the Handexemplar and are not printed in every edition. They are effective if you feel like adding even more notes! Having successfully negotiated this one, you can feel you’re now on the home stretch.

The last canon, Variation 27, is at the interval of a ninth and is the only one in which Bach abandons a supporting bass. Staying within the harmonic outline of his theme, the two canonic voices chatter away in a friendly sort of dialogue, slightly tinged with mischief before coming to a very abrupt end. Bach then launches into Variation 28, a study in written-out trills if ever there was one. The continuing sense of joy is characterized by the wide leaps which accompany them and the bell-like notes which mark the beat. A good piano with an easy action and great clarity is necessary to bring this one off satisfactorily. With no let-up allowed, the last of the toccatas, Variation 29, opens with joyous drumbeats in the left hand followed by chords hammered out on the two keyboards (or in this case one). Doubling the octave leaps in the left hand give it the required extra power. I feel it should begin somewhat like a free improvisation, but then be strictly in time for the descending cavalcades of notes that follow. If Beethoven comes to mind in the previous variation, then Liszt is surely not far away in this one! It leads us triumphantly into Variation 30, which we expect to be a canon at the tenth—but Bach always has something up his sleeve. In this case it is a Quodlibet (literally meaning ‘as you please’). A quodlibet was a kind of musical joke in which popular songs, usually of opposing character, were superimposed. This could be done at a family reunion, most likely after a hearty meal and lots of beer and wine. We know that once a year the Bach clan (an enormous one and full of professional musicians) met at such gatherings, beginning their festivities religiously with a chorale, and ending in complete contrast with an improvised quodlibet, the words of which were purposely humorous and often very naughty. For this final variation Bach chose two folksongs, the words of which are:

I’ve not been with you for so long.
Come closer, closer, closer.


Cabbage and beets drove me away.
Had my mother cooked some meat then I’d have
stayed much longer.

In choosing these folksongs, Bach deftly combines his sublime thoughts with the everyday, and brings us a conclusion full of warmth and joy. For someone who was always a ‘workaholic’ and to whom discipline came naturally (even in the last days of his life he didn’t let blindness deter him, and dictated his final work to his pupil and son-in-law Altnikol), he also certainly knew how to enjoy life and to share his humanity with us. But now the party is over, the crowd disperses, and the Aria returns, as if from afar. Rather than stating it affirmatively, as it appears in the beginning, it should appear veiled and even more beautiful in retrospect. Surely this is one of the most moving moments in all of music, and it speaks to us with great simplicity. Our journey is complete, yet we are back where we began.

The ‘Goldberg’ Variations, when well played, is one of the best performance pieces in the keyboard repertoire. There is a strong visual component—thanks to the spectacular hand-crossings—that makes it fascinating to the spectator and gave Landowska reason to complain: ‘The gluttony with which the public rushes to buy tickets to hear the Goldberg Variations saddens and discourages me. Is it through love for this music? No, they do not know it. They are prompted simply by the base curiosity of seeing a virtuoso fight with the most difficult work ever written for keyboard.’ Of course that was written in 1933 when she made the first-ever recording of the work. Nowadays it is widely performed and appreciated, and fortunately still sells tickets! One thing that every interpreter has to decide is whether or not to include the repeats, which of course doubles the length. It is hard to please everybody when considering what to do. Donald Francis Tovey (1875–1940) thought it ‘unscholarly to include them all’. Busoni suggested no repeats, and actually suppressed some variations entirely! Many concert promoters do not want to have just one 80-minute piece in a recital without an interval. For the past 25 years, I have performed the ‘Goldberg’ mostly in the no-repeats version (always, however, including them in the Quodlibet which is otherwise ridiculously short) as the second half of a programme. Now that I have added all the repeats for this recording, I find its impact immensely heightened, the architecture so much more evident, and the possibilities for variation within the variations endless. So although I know I will still be performing it frequently in the shorter version, my preference lies with what Bach wrote.

We might well ask ourselves why this work has such an enormous effect on us, as I believe it does. It is certainly one of the most therapeutic pieces of music in that we always feel better for having listened to it. The beauty, joy and fulfilment that Bach shares with us are powerful healers, and give us momentarily the sense of completeness we seek. Perhaps, however, the true reasons should remain a mystery. When writing about the ‘Goldberg’, it has become almost traditional, ever since Ralph Kirkpatrick wrote the preface to his excellent edition of the work in 1934, to quote a passage from Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici (1643), and I make no exception here:

There is something in it of Divinity more than the ear discovers. It is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole World, and creatures of God; such a melody to the ear, as the whole World, well understood, would afford the understanding. In brief it is a sensible fit of that Harmony which intellectually sounds in the ears of God.

Angela Hewitt © 2000

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