Webern, Brahms and Half a Bach

United StatesUnited States Webern, Brahms, Bach: Minsoo Sohn (piano), Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York 6.10.2012 (SSM)

Anton Webern: Variations for Piano, Op. 27
Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24
J. S. Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

If Minsoo Sohn had heeded the words of the grande dame of Bach pianists, Roslyn Tureck, he would have reconsidered his decision to skip the repeats in his performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations: “In Bach’s music the repeats are essential… This is inescapably true in the Goldberg Variations, which are so alive with contrapuntal variation. Without repeats the Goldberg Variations are a tour de force. With them the music is fulfilled, becoming the Odyssey of variation form that it truly is.” Roslyn Tureck is referring to Glen Gould’s thirty-eight minute recording made three years before her comments but she could have just as well been talking about Sohn’s thirty-one minute performance here. Of course, there is no law requiring him to play repeats but by not doing so – particularly those that have different first section end bars – the pianist is in fact not playing notes written by Bach to be performed.

The other major issue is that some part of the audience was drawn to this recital based on hearing Sohn’s recent recording of the Goldberg Variations on the Honens label. On this CD Sohn not only plays every repeat, but also applies to them the subtlest and most sensitive ornamentation I can ever remember hearing. It is a shame we were not given the opportunity to hear them performed live. Adding these repetitions would have made this one of the great Goldbergs of the twenty-first century. This accolade is no small claim given the competition he’s up against. A search on “Goldberg Variations” on Amazon comes up with 871.

Sohn has an uncanny ability to control his touch in such a way as to make one think each line of music is being played on a different piano or by a second pianist. This was apparent from the opening aria where the upper and lower lines seemed to roll like waves. The same could be said for the three-voiced canons which were both luminous and pellucid. The clarity of the marching bass of the sixth variation, the subtle shading of the phrases of the eighth, the “variations” in touch as each voice enters in the fughetto of the tenth variation, the almost comical fluttering of the eleventh and the seventeenth, the ravishing poignancy drawn from the thirteenth, the frenetic quavers racing around the keyboard of the twentieth, the rubato creating a sense of hesitancy and uncertainty in the twenty-fifth, and the effortless playing of the difficult twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth with their combinations of trilling and hand-crossing, are just the highlights of his masterly interpretation.

The virtuosity here was no simple showmanship. Each variation seemed carefully thought through, decisively stated and played with the muscularity to prove it.

Webern’s brief three-movement set that at one time seemed so impossibly radical, in Sohn’s hands came off as being of its time (it was written in 1936). The short sub-segments of the tone rows played variously in inversion and retrograde tied the phases together within the movement; the three movements then tied together as a whole. Wisps of sound connected it in ways that made it seem both similar to and the opposite of the tonal world of the dying romantic tradition.

Sohn’s interpretation of Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel was more than technically adept, but lacked the imagination and conviction of his Bach. The variety of both musical forms and composers represented in Brahms’ Variations from Bach to Beethoven to Schumann, while not requiring the pianist to have a degree in musicology to perform successfully, does require a deep understanding of the music that Brahms himself had inherited. It is to be hoped that Sohn some time in the future will reappraise this set of variations as well as his decision to drop the repeats in the Goldberg Variations.

Stan Metzger