Goldberg Variations: Refracted and Re-Gilded

United StatesUnited States Bach/Holloway: Steven Ryan and Catherine Venable (piano), “Refracted Bach: Dessoff Choirs’ 2012 Midwinter Festival,” Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, 7.02.2012 (SSM)

“Gilded Goldbergs,” Op. 86

New York Premiere

This performance is part of the Midwinter Festival organized by the Dessoff Choirs to explore the ramifications and “refractions” of Bach’s music through the centuries. Tonight’s concert probably came closest to the Festival’s descriptive ideal: Bach’s music refracted through the sensibility of other composers – in this case, Robin Holloway.There have been many modifications made over the centuries to the Goldberg Variations, most of which fall into two categories. The most common is the transcription or transposition of the work for other instruments: harp, accordion, guitar, string trio, two pianos or orchestra. The second features an artist’s modifications, improvisations or variations; within this group there are versions that more or less retain the identity of the original music.

Uri Caine’s reworking (2000) of the Goldberg Variations is probably the most ambitious ever undertaken. It starts with the main theme played on a fortepiano as written, but then crosses over to everything from rag to jazz, chorus to string quartet, waltzes to tangos. Running two and a half hours and comprising seventy variations, it takes to heart Bach’s tacit license to allow his music to be played on whatever instrument a musician desired. At this point in Bach’s life he was more concerned about perfecting his art and ensuring his legacy than the practical concern of who played what. One of Bach’s last pieces, The Musical Offering, has only a few movements that specify any instrumentation at all.

The Rheinberger/Reger transcription (1883, 1903) for two pianos comes closest to what Robin Holloway stated was his initial desire to “clarify the close-weave canons or manage the fiendish hand-crossing numbers.” Josef Rheinberger allocated the more difficult contrapuntal lines to four hands over two pianos to make the original more playable. Max Reger then took Rheinberger’s Variations and, as he did with many of Bach’s works, filled in harmonic layers which he felt was necessary for the music to be appreciated by modern ears. The end result stays reasonably close to the original work.

Although there was one variation, the Messiaen-like eighteenth, which I couldn’t connect with its source, I was able to keep up with Robin Holloway’s version by running through Bach’s variations in my head. (Having the score of the original work might have helped one understand Holloway’s changes.) What is so unusual about Bach’s Goldberg Variations is that he never actually develops the upper melody. He writes variations on the inner harmonic flow of the aria rather than the opening aria or theme itself. This differs from themes and variations by other composers like Beethoven: as far as he goes tonally and thematically from Diabelli’s original waltz, it is always recognizable in every variation.

Holloway does the same as Bach, changing harmonies, modulating through keys, keeping most variations intact but also deconstructing others. In the famous twenty-fifth variation (which has been controversial since Glen Gould took six and a half minutes to play it in his thirty-eight minute 1955 recording), Holloway makes sure our interest is held by breaking it apart and then splicing the pieces back together again. The heavy dissonant chords in many of the variations as well as the tone clusters in the twenty-ninth are reminiscent of Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata where two or more things are going on at the same time. Ives’s explanation is that as a child he remembered hearing two bands heading into town from different directions and playing different tunes. Some of this polytonal writing is done here, as well.

The nineteenth variation (entitled “Ländler and Trio. ‘Brief history of Austro-German music in triple time’”) was the most fun to listen to and seemed so natural it could almost pass as the original. Beethoven integrated only one external reference in his twenty-second variation of the Diabelli Variations, “Notte e giorno faticar” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Holloway gives us at least nine here, all from three-quarter minuets, ländler and waltzes, including minuets from a Haydn symphony, Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony, and Beethoven’s Eighth, and references from Brahms and Richard Strauss (Der Rosenkavalier).

One does not need to know any of the above to enjoy these playful variations on variations. The polished technique of Steven Ryan and Catherine Venable was formidable, and I can only imagine how tremendously demanding rehearsal time must have been. I couldn’t say if there were any wrong notes played, particularly in a variation such as the tenth which is entitled “Robust and a bit gormless. Wrong-note music.” But there’s no question that the pianists vividly conveyed the spirit of both the composer and his transcriber in an elegant and majestic way.

Stan Metzger