Have we got a Goldberg for you!
Have you ever popped a new CD into the player, intending just to check out the first track or so — then ended up listening until the very end? Me too. In fact, it happened on Tuesday afternoon, as I was choosing a performance of the Goldberg Variations to include on WFCR's classical show for Wednesday, Bach's birthday.
The Goldbergs, for those new to them, are Bach's 30 variations on the bass line and chord progression of a sarabande-like instrumental aria, published in 1741 as part of his "Klavierübung" ("Keyboard Practice") series. (The word "Goldberg", by the way, never appears in the publicaton; read further to find out where the nickname comes from.) As for what all that stuff about chord progressions and variations means, well, think of it as being like a jazz musician improvising over thirty choruses of the blues, or maybe the chords of "I Got Rhythm". Except in Bach's case, it's the greatest musical genius in history, lavishing his unfathomable artistry on a work that would sum up everything he had ever learned about composing variations.
No wonder so many keyboard artists have felt both attracted to and intimidated by the Goldbergs. (such as pianist Jeremy Denk, who is saying as much in his recent blog posts for NPR). I mean, not only is the work itself one of the most daunting musical and intellectual challenges presented to any performer. There's also the Goldbergs' awesome performance history to contend with. Just consider some of the piano renditions (and I'm sticking to the piano for now) on WFCR's shelves: Rosalyn Tureck. Charles Rosen. Maria Tipo. Peter Serkin. Murray Perahia. András Schiff. Angela Hewitt. Simone Dinnerstein. And of course, the one and only Glenn Gould, from both the alpha and the omega of his strange, storied career. Each pianist plays the same notes (minus an individual ornament or two); each tells a different story. Not that there isn't room for another, but any artist who wants to follow the aforementioned and many more had better have a unique and compelling vision of the Goldberg Variations.
As does a pianist I admit to being unaware of until Tuesday. I think I'm in love. His name is Daniel-Ben Pienaar. He's from South Africa, and now lives in London. He devotes himself largely to the classic keyboard repertoire — Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin — which he's given to examining one-composer-at-a-time, and performing in very large portions (e.g., all six Bach Partitas in one evening). And based on what I've heard so far, he's got plenty of flair and personality — even, dare I say, a touch of the theatrical (Bach theatrical? Perish the thought!). Check out Pienaar's Goldberg Variations Wednesday afternoon on WFCR. Bright tempos, sprightly rhythms, a broad palette of piano colors, a sense of play and fun, clear delineation of musical line — for once, a performance that actually bears the inevitable comparison of any new Goldbergs performance to Gould's. Yet (and here's where I'm going to get in trouble with Gould acolytes) whereas Gould's dry sonority and harpsichord-like evenness of touch creates a mechanical, almost inhuman effect, Pienaar's more natural, conversational way of "speaking" the phrases makes his performance much more approachable and engaging. To me, at least. Let me know whether you agree. And we'll give you a second chance to hear Pienaar's Goldbergs this Sunday on WFCR.