Oxford Coffee Concerts Presents a Programme of Bach Keyboard Works


Oxford Coffee Concerts – Bach: Viv McLean (piano). Holywell Music Room, Oxford 12.11.2017. (CR)

Bach Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 (arr. Busoni); Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639 (arr. Busoni); Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

The Oxford Coffee Concerts, taking place on Sunday mornings in the city’s Holywell Music Room (believed to be one of the oldest purpose-built public concert venues in the world), are a well-established institution. My coverage of them for these webpages is well overdue, and so it was a great pleasure to visit on this occasion.

On Remembrance Sunday it was apposite to remember that the country with whom Great Britain was at war twice in the 20th century was the same country that produced such a universally-acknowledged phenomenon as Johann Sebastian Bach. His Goldberg Variations must surely stand forever as one of the pinnacles of human intellectual achievement in any place or time, and is a far more positive reminder of Germany’s contribution to world culture. Although not explicitly offered for Remembrance Day, the two sombre chorale preludes in Busoni’s arrangements provided a suitably meditative preface. In both, Viv McLean gave out a sonorous bass line, and which was dark and moody in the case of Ich ruf zu Dir. But where the latter’s upper line, carrying the melody, was delicate and tranquil with a lilting accompaniment in the middle part, like a song without words, the soprano line for Nun komm, de Heiden Heiland was more deliberately delineated and urgent. The more contrasting registers and articulation of the parts in the latter echoed rather more obviously the varied registrations of the organ in its original form, than the more integrated, pianistic textures of Ich ruf zu Dir, and so together they made a good contrasted pairing.

McLean’s account of the Goldberg Variations stood out for their generally bold and robust character, but which remained crisp and forward-driven, assisted by his not observing any repeats. The Aria itself was slow and thoughtful on both appearances, with the ornamentation added to the melody giving rise to a flexibility in its tempo, but the variations then took on a life and vivacity of their own, tending to eschew such rubato or pulling about with their rhythms. Even in the long, usually slow, ‘Black Pearl’ variation, no. XXV, McLean’s pace was not so languid that direction and purpose within the exquisite filigree melody fell apart, but in following the mounting tension implied by the underlying chromatic harmonies, this movement sustained its own compelling pace. Rather than structured into discrete groups of units, McLean gave the 30 variations as individual entities in their own right, where he often and deliberately pushed on with urgency to a climax within a given variation. There was, however, a sense of momentum and tension building up over the last few variations towards the jocular release of the humorous Quodlibet of the last variation, based on a couple of light-hearted folksongs; and he ran no. XVII straight on from the chord of the preceding variation.

In no sense, however, did the set seem disintegrated or unconnected, because McLean was consistent in the vigour of his attack upon the music, where the bass line was almost always to the fore (as appropriate, since it is the harmonic and contrapuntal permutations of that part of the Aria which Bach explores, not its melody) but without detracting from the myriad diversity of the material which Bach works up on top of that. Within that the varieties of form or rhythm were suitably brought out, for instance with strong declamation of the triple time signature of variations IV and XIV in particular; the nuanced voicing among the parts as necessary for the Fughetta of no. X; the spacious, grand manner of no. XVI’s French Overture, opening the second half of the whole sequence; the crystalline handling of the suspensions of the Alla Breve no. XXII, like a piece of a cappella polyphony by Palestrina where it was not so much the note-by-note profile of the melodies that registered as the slower rhythm of that variation’s harmonic pace; and no. XXVIII ticking like a clock.

Tempos were brisk and sprightly but without actually rushing and, a few haphazard notes aside, it was a particular pleasure to trace the lines of the two hands as they ran into and then crossed over each other (for example in variations XI, XX, and XXIII) creating the impression of a melodic collision, but then resolving seamlessly in the resulting order that inevitably follows in Bach’s impeccable working out of the contrapuntal lines. Together with some liberal, but judicious, use of pedalling, in those variations where fragments of themes or single notes or chords are tossed between the hands in rapid succession (as in nos. XX, XXIII, XXVIII, and XXIX), the resulting textures merged within the aural soundscape at large to make clear Bach’s overall conception within these movements, rather than remaining as disconnected points of sound across different sections of the keyboard.

A compendium such as the Goldberg Variations are ultimately inexhaustible in their interpretative possibilities, but McLean’s approach carried the virtue of energy and consistency in the concentration he brought to bear over the work’s roughly 45 minute duration.

Curtis Rogers

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