Next up in my listening of the Complete Bach Edition set of CDs is The Goldberg Variations. At the same time I listened to this CD, I also listened to a new interpretation by Simone Dinnerstein, played on a 1903 Hamburg Steinway concert grand instead of the harpsichord version (played by Pieter-Jan Belder) from the Bach Edition CD. Listening to the two versions side by side was really helpful in identifying the differences between the variations, and the juxtaposition of harpsichord and piano makes the whole exercise very enjoyable.
Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nicolaus Forkel (1802) claimed that the Goldberg Variations were commissioned by Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, who had trouble sleeping. He told Bach “that he should like to have some clavier pieces for his house harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, which should be of such a soft an somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights.” (quoting from Christoph Wolff’s biography of Bach). Unfortunately, at the time they were published in 1741 as the fourth part of Bach’s Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice), Goldberg was only 14 and probably couldn’t have played these difficult pieces. Also, the Variations weren’t dedicated to von Keyserlingk, as would have been required at the time if they’d actually been commissioned by him.
The Goldberg Variations begin and end with an aria, and in between there are 30 variations on the original. Every third variation is a canon (a work with a leading melody and an imitative follower that's offset in timing), and the tenth is a fugue (a sort of complex canon). According to the liner notes, the “bass and harmonic structure” are preserved in all the variations. I have a rudimentary sense of what that means, but when I listen to the pieces, I don’t really hear the similarities at all. I’d probably recognize them as being different from a solo keyboard work by Chopin, but that’s not the same thing as really understanding what’s going on. Luckily, musicologically (?) understanding it isn’t a requirement of enjoying it.
I found Donald Satz’s 2000 discussion on the Bach Cantatas website of a series of Goldberg recordings to be very helpful in listening to the two versions I’m considering here, even though he doesn’t consider these recordings specifically. I include a few of his observations in the variation descriptions below.
As mentioned, I listened to a version on harpsichord and a version on piano. I’d never really payed much attention to the sound of a harpsichord, but unlike a piano, the strings on a harpsichord are plucked by the mechanism, rather than being struck by a hammer. It results in a sharper sound, and to me, it’s easier to distinguish both individual notes and the different hands playing at the same time. I find it harder to distinguish the two hands with piano, but the sound is much smoother and expressive. The ability to carry emotion comes through in the piano version of the aria, played very slowly, luxuriously by Dinnerstein. The timing on the two versions aren’t all that different (5:03 for Belder, 5:39 for Dinnerstein), but Dinnerstein’s version really feels relaxed.
The first variation charges out of the gate after the aria with lots of counterpoint and a nice fast rhythm. Hearing it on harpsichord, I immediately hear “baroque.” The harpsichord version also really emphasizes the different hands playing two contrasting melodies. Dinnerstein seems to be playing it even faster, and maintains the upbeat cheerful sound. The subtlety possible with the piano is also clear here, where she starts some of the melodic repeats quietly the first time through, and emphasises them the second time.
The second variation also has a lot of contrasting melodies, but this time the two hands go farther away from each other, so the piece sounds more complex. It’s also quite short, over before you know it. Dinnerstein slows down quite a bit, and it sounds quite different as a result. Less about counterpoint and technical prowess, and more about atmosphere.
Variation three sounds more full; both hands working very hard on their respective melodies. It really sounds quite challenging on harpsichord. On the piano, it’s still a complex piece, but I don’t get the sense that all the notes are coming together as chords. Again, this may be because Dinnerstein’s pacing is much slower (3:25 to Belder’s 2:01).
The fourth variation is very rhythmic in both versions and the solid beat of the piece really carries you along. Thus far, this piece seems most similar between the two interpretations.
The next variation is very fast and melodic with some great opportunities to allow subtle changes in timing to really enhance the music. I really like the way the measures (if that’s even the right word) end with a short melody, chord, and then a very short pause before continuing. Dinnerstein really flies through this one.
Variation six has a different sound than what we’ve heard so far, and I think it’s because the melodies and bass line are lower than before. It’s not my favorite variation.
Seven is happy, frivolous sounding music, maybe something you’d hear playing at a seventeenth century society ball, or a piece you’d play to entertain a baby. Dinnerstein plays it very slowly, making the little trills sound even more frivolous when she gets to them.
The eighth variation is another rhythmic piece that reminds me of the fourth variation. But the longer, complex melodies in it make it sound like something other than a baroque piece, especially on piano.
Variation nine is an emotional piece without a lot of melodic or counterpointal flourish. Belder plays it slow and sweet, giving it room to work. Dinnerstein plays it more quickly, but she varies the timing and loudness of the notes nicely, which really brings out the touching parts of the music.
The tenth variation is a fugue with lots of voices and counterpoint, but despite all the things going on simultaneously, it lacks the little melodic touches and hooks that the other variations have. Dinnerstein and Belder’s versions are very similar; both seem to be just playing it straight up without any interpretation.
The eleventh returns to form, and Bach seems to be emphasizing downward scales in this one. It seems like one hand is always working it’s way down a scale in this one. I don’t get much emotion out of it, beyond a sense of playfulness, even if it doesn’t reach the level of variation seven. I like Belder’s version here, mostly because I get a little distracted by the little trills when they’re played on the piano.
Variation twelve doesn’t do much for me, especially in Belder’s hands. I like the brief melody that starts the piece and occurs a couple other times after lulls in the cacophony, but after that, it all sounds like a jumble of notes and I can’t really pick much out of the noise. Dinnerstein is better just because it sounds smother, but I have the same problem of not being able to really pull anything out of the sound the grab onto.
The thirteenth starts off confused, just like the twelfth variation, and I admit that I really couldn’t make much out of this one. There are a few moments where a couple riffs on scales brought my interest back, but then lost it again.
The fourteenth variation comes back to more of what I like in the other variations, melodies contrasting and combining together, with a lot of interesting changes throughout. It sounds like it’s a difficult one to play also, Belder makes a strange knocking noise about a quarter of the way in, as though he accidentally banged into some part of the harpsichord trying to play the piece. Some of the magic is lost in Dinnerstein’s performance because it sounds to me like she’s playing it so quickly that she doesn’t quite get all the notes to play fully. Maybe this is one advantage of the harpsichord’s plucking mechanism; each note will be heard, even if some of the variety is missing.
Variation fifteen is a dark, sad sounding piece in a minor key (according to Satz, only 15, 21 and 25 are). It seems very slow after hearing number fourteen, but despite the pace and somber emotion, it’s very interesting. The two hands seem to play off each other more in timing than in tone, with one hand striking a note, pausing noticeably before the other hand answers with a single or series of notes. The last note, struck so late after the previous note is really poignant. Dinnerstein also uses the timing of the piece really effectively to enhance the emotion of the piece. Great stuff, even if (maybe because) it’s completely opposite from the bright, happy works that make up most of the Variations.
Number sixteen sounds almost dance-like in that the piece seems to be playing up on it’s toes for the majority of the piece. Belder’s version is more than a minute longer than Dinnerstein but doesn’t sound slower, so I’m not sure where all the time goes.
To me, variation seventeen sounds similar to eleven in that there’s a distinct emphasis on scales. This time around there’s more variation around the scales themselves, and they seem to go both up and down. Dinnerstein plays this piece really fast compared to Belder, and it sounds better this way than her interpretation of the eleventh. Both of these variations are really good, and what’s cool about these two is that they really show how interpretation is critical. They each do something completely different with the same piece, and get really good results for different reasons.
Eighteen is a nice poetic and melodic piece that doesn’t depend on speed or overt complexity to keep the listener interested. Both interpretations are similar in speed and style, and both sound great.
Satz describes variation nineteen as “feel-good” music, and I agree. It’s another one that has a nice sense of rhythm that carries you along with the melodies being played. Belder must be skipping a bunch of repeats in his version because it’s over in only 39 seconds. Just as I was getting into it, the thing was over. Dinnerstein takes almost two minutes for her version, which is much better. She’s varying the rhythm a bit more, and also effectively changes the feel throughout by managing how hard she’s striking the keys.
Both Belder and Dinnerstein play variation twenty like it was a challenge to see how quickly they could fly over the keys, and Dinnerstein loses a lot of emotion by playing it this way. Both versions are invigorating and impressive, but I think they could have been more expressive.
Variation twenty-one is another minor key variation, and it’s really poetic. Belder uses timing really well and effectively carries the emotion throughout. Dinnerstein plays it nice and slow, really picking up all the emotion. The way she slows and quiets down her playing on the first repeat at 1:10 is fantastic and contrasts nicely with the more forceful playing elsewhere in the variation. Her version is two minutes longer than Belder’s, giving her more range to explore.
Twenty-two is a vibrant, upbeat piece for Belder; Dinnerstein plays it much more reflectively. I’m not sure which interpretation I like better, but this is another example of the great variety of interpretation possible in Bach’s music. Both versions make me smile: Belder uses dance-like rhythm and upbeat playing, while Dinnerstein lets the infectious melodic hooks carry me through her version.
The next variation continues the upbeat theme, but is a lot more complex. Satz uses the word “rollercoaster,” which does fit the piece. I found Belder to be a bit disjointed and it didn’t seem to hang together as a unified work. Dinnerstein makes it sound more fluid, but I think there’s just too much going on here for me to be really satisfied.
Variation twenty-four is a reflective work that’s neither upbeat nor sad, but has a nice relaxing pace and reduced complexity after 22 and 23. I got a little lost by the end of both versions, the variation turning into sound rather than music, and I think this probably means I’m getting tired. For me, listening to music of this complexity, especially twice for each variation, is a challenge to my ears and mind.
Variation twenty-five has been called the “Black Pearl” because of how dark and depressing it is supposed to be. It’s the final variation in a minor key, and I agree with Satz that it’s the least effective of these three. Fifteen and twenty one were both emotional and dark. This one just seems to plod along in Belder’s version, never really getting anywhere or eliciting any feeling at all. Dinnerstein does a lot better for me, with nice pacing and expressive playing. Even so, I think it’s the least interesting of the three minor key pieces.
The twenty-sixth variation is a very fluid, engaging work with one hand playing a reasonably simple melody while the other hand ranges all over the keyboard. Dinnersteing plays it incredibly fast but not firmly enough to really carry the entire melody. I appreciate the challenge, but it’s not a great interpretation of the music. She does build to more of a climax than Belder does, but I still liked his version better.
Variation twenty-seven is more playful, melodic music. Belder goes from start to finish in just over a minute, making the work too short to appreciate. Dinnerstein takes twice as long, and I really like her version.
Variation twenty-eight starts with one hand playing a light melody while the other plays non-stop trills. There are a few breaks where something else is going on, but the majority of the piece continues this way with one hand crazily dinging up and down while the other plays something simple. It’s not my favorite combination, and gets really repetitive by the end. Belder goes on for two minutes and 44 seconds before yielding. Dinnerstein’s version is a minute shorter, and she plays all the trills with a really light hand, bringing as much beauty out of the piece as might be possible. When her’s first started, I couldn’t believe how much more relaxing all the hammering sounded compared with Belder’s harpsichord. It’s still not my favorite, but it’s much easier to listen to.
Twenty-nine is a toccata that covers a lot of ground. The variation means that it was difficult for me to concentrate on it because I never knew where it was going to go next, and there didn’t seem to be a unifying melody or rhythm that drew me from one part to the next.
The final variation starts with a nice simple melody and accompaniment. These simple themes continue throughout, with a nice rhythm to keep it moving. It’s a graceful and relaxed way to end the variations. Both versions are similar in pacing and in the limited amount of flourish added around the edges of the work.
After the thirty variations, the initial aria is repeated. One of the eMusic reviews I read of the Goldberg Variations said that you wouldn’t hear the initial aria the same way at the end, after hearing all the variations. I’m afraid that even with careful listening, I wasn’t able to pick up on exactly how the Variations were actually related to the initial and concluding aria. As far as I can tell, I’m just hearing the aria again.
It was really informative to listen to two versions side by side. Both versions were really well played, and I didn’t hear any huge mistakes either in technique or interpretation (although I’m far from an expert). I enjoyed the clarity of the harpsichord, and the light-hearted feeling it was able to give to the music, but often it made the Variations sound more technical and difficult, almost like an exercise. Also, Dinnerstein brought out more emotion and less of a feeling of it being a challenge to meet, and her slow pacing in a lot of the variations was a welcome change from Belder’s furious noise. But both versions had their good and bad parts, and I’d certainly recommend listening to more than one, especially if you can hear both harpsichord and piano.