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Try, Try Again

Three Provide Variations on the Goldberg Variations

By Adam Baer | Posted 10/25/2000

When Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his Goldberg Variations for solo keyboard--a monumental set of 30 musical elaborations, book-ended by a serene little aria--his world didn't differ all that much from ours. In 1741, as now, performers served wealthy patrons and composers considered the form of their works as important as their tunes. As it is now, flexible interpretation was also in the spirit of the time. Despite its image as rigid or academic, Baroque-period performance focused on elasticity--playing with musical statements, expanding on them to glorify singable tunes.

Three new recordings of the Goldberg Variations stretch the work's elasticity. In the spirit of Glenn Gould--the inimitable pianist known not only for putting the piece on the map, but for interpreting it differently in two landmark recordings--each is a departure from one another. A pianistic triumph, Murray Perahia's rendition is a benchmark of modern musical analysis and interpretation, relying on minute harmonic details in the compositions to dictate its melodic destinations--where the phrases go, the notes they emphasize, and the places at which they peak. Jazz avant-gardist Uri Caine's approach rebels: Some variations are played in Baroque style, some rewrite Bach with a New Orleans jazz feel, some groove to the pops and snaps of a hip-hop turntablist (few are played on the keyboard only). Angela Hewitt's disc, a Grammy nominee, takes the proverbial high road. She doesn't obsess over the work's hidden crevices or search for new shtick; she plays the same style piano as Perahia, and moves through the work with meditative momentum and an intuitive understanding of the work as an artistic process.

Faced with such disparities on a major work of Bach--perhaps the most influential of all Western composers--it's hard to ignore the obvious questions these recordings posit. Which interpretations are "appropriate?" Which, if any, are blasphemous? Why are people driven to ascertain which is which? But questions such as these only serve as fodder for elitist banter and don't offer productive methods for approaching such wonderfully accessible subject matter. Instead, why not seek out what about each recording illuminates the reasons the Goldberg Variations is so inspiring?

Murray Perahia develops his answer like an archeologist: He digs into the structure of the piece's harmony and, within the age-old complexities of Bach's intricate web of notes, discovers new-sounding chords and tunes. Perahia plays with a conservative mixture of delicate touch and well-rounded sound. He never articulates notes too harshly when playing loud, or too ethereally when playing soft. From him, listeners are privileged to hear Bach's gift to write eloquent lines that move against each other in contrary motion, returning home with a sense of resolution more satisfying than any other. The problem is that the music sometimes sounds too profound. Some variations are wonderfully rendered, particularly those that require soft, fast fingerwork. But a good lot of them sound overworked: Those that need majesty get pomp; those that beg for grace receive prissiness; and those that crave momentum crawl at tempos designed for harmonic study, not tuneful communication. But Perahia's sketch of Bach is of the composer as an ever-living mystery--one worth discovering again and again. In that respect, his CD has virtue.

Unlike Perahia's deft inside-baseball, Uri Caine stretches classical music's scope. Leader of his own ever-changing jazz ensemble, Caine employs antique German harpsichords, soothing viola de gambas, swinging saxophones, bebop trumpets, and a cappella vocalists to rearticulate Bach in nontraditional musical idioms. He pushes the envelope so far, he deviates from Bach's ordered form: The two-disc set is more a series of reactions to Bach and other classical composers. In certain variations, such as one produced by turntablist DJ Logic, it's hard to decipher its relevance to Bach's old-world charms; but in his electronic beats and synthesized melodies, Logic epitomizes the word "variation." Other variations--the ones sung by gospel, atonal, or a cappella voices, say--sound nothing like Bach and, mediocre on their own, lose significance completely.

But reaching for relevance is the essence of the avant garde. Caine is supposed to go too far; required to break ground, he must charm, toy, shock, confuse, and even upset. Caine's take, like his recent reinterpretations of late-19th-century symphonist Gustav Mahler, is a worthy rendering no matter how many Juilliard-trained ears it offends. The Bach of the Goldberg Variations is not inaccessible, but is a composer with the ability to entertain and move anyone. Bach was a simple man who produced music to serve God and his fellow man. One suspects that he would appreciate Caine's attempt to demystify his work.

Angela Hewitt demystifies Bach through sheer simplicity; her CD is evidence of her bond with him--her human connection to the melodies and instinctive reactions to them. Hewitt's virtuosity and poetic ease at the keyboard paints an image of the performer as a vehicle through which divine music flows. Bach sounds more natural from Hewitt than from Perahia or Caine: Melodies breathe of their own accord, and she is merely there to let them. She speaks with clean lines, affectionate cadences, and commitment to unabashedly exploring the work's development. When tender moods are called for, she's all over them; when grandiose emotions loom on the horizon, she builds up to them with tasteful pace. This Bach is a man connected to the earth and the cosmos at once. In Hewitt's hands, the Variations aren't separate pieces with individual concerns; they're one cohesive statement on clarity, the "epic," and art that draws people out of day-to-day concerns.

All three recordings serve a function, though primarily for open-minded Bach lovers. Everyone should give Hewitt a chance. Adventurers--those who are already familiar with Gould's famously compulsive overinterpretations, for instance--might try Caine or Perahia. Whichever ends up in the CD changer, though, will stimulate curiosity. For, as the story goes, the Goldberg Variations was written for a man who suffered from insomnia. Whether the piece's purpose was to soothe him to sleep or stimulate him through the tortuous, ongoing night has always been open to interpretation. Some might say the same about how the piece itself should be played and what it means. Its true significance is in its ability to inspire variation.

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