The Goldberg Variations Refreshing the Spirits of Music-Lovers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BachNick van Bloss (piano). Ciné lumière, Institut français, London, 22.3.2013 (MB)

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

An exciting occasion in many respects, not only in terms of this concert itself, but also the weekend it opened; ‘It’s all about Piano!’ subtitled, ‘a festival celebrating all forms of piano,’ hosted by the Institut français du Royaume-Uni in South Kensington. There is an embarrassment of riches, including recitals by Imogen Cooper (Schubert) and Cyprien Katsaris, a duo recital from Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen (including the four-hands version of The Rite of Spring), a ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ series (just one of which, performed by Antoine Alerini, offers Maurice Ohana, Félix Ibarrondo, Stockhausen, and Jonathan Harvey), and film (including the world première showing of a filmed version of Poulenc’s La Voix humaine from Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson). For further details, please click here. It is certainly to be hoped that so enterprising a festival will become a regular feature of London’s musical life; I only wish that I had been able to attend more events myself.

Nick van Bloss offered a scintillating account of one of the very peaks of the piano literature, the fourth part of Bach’s Clavier-Übung, as we never call it, or the Aria with diverse variations, as we equally seldom call it, commonly known as the Goldberg Variations. Composed ‘to refresh … [the] spirits’ of ‘music lovers’, it certainly did so here. Indeed, I had to marvel that something like an hour and a quarter had passed, for I could happily have listened to work – and performance – immediately again. There will always be a multitude of ways in which this work may be performed, even if we leave aside – with relief – the non-question concerning the instrument. Sir Thomas Beecham’s celebrated description made the harpsichord sound more interesting than it is; those of us without antiquarian fetishes welcome the modern piano with open arms and ears. There was certainly no question that van Bloss was willing to exploit the modern instrument to the full, Bach’s two-manual ‘effects’ transferring with added brilliance and bravura to the Steinway. Not that anything was merely ‘pianistic’ for its own sake; indeed, the overriding impression, however ideologically loaded these terms may be, was of a masterpiece of ‘absolute music’. There was not the slightest temptation to read anything programmatic into work or performance; the canvas of Bach’s musical imagination was more than enough for us to grapple with. For who would ever dare to think that he had somehow finally ‘understood’ this work in its entirety? At best one comes a little closer, ‘at best’ requiring an excellent performance such as this.

Van Bloss’s approach was not to adopt, still less to impose, a unifying æsthetic. Unity instead arose out of diversity, out of those ‘diverse variations’. Even when there were instances when I might have cavilled, for instance a couple of very ‘dry’, almost defiantly non-lingering, conclusions to particular variations, the point was immediately clear, and made fine retrospective sense in terms of preparation for the following variation. (I should probably add in this connection that, whilst the Ciné lumière undoubtedly offered an intimate performing space, its acoustic must also have presented a challenge, here skilfully surmounted.) Whilst tone was fuller, more piano-oriented, than anything one would be likely to hear in, say, Glenn Gould’s recordings, some variations enjoyed a more clipped and rhythmically strict performance, whereas others, not least Wanda Landowska’s ‘black pearl’, the 25th, looked forward – or should that be back? – to the Romantic period that so adored and rejuvenated Bach’s music. Though the shift is not straightforwardly linear by any means, the general developmental impulse within the score toward greater complexity – if only in cumulative terms – registered clearly and convincingly. The Quodlibet was as limpid, and yet as contrapuntally meaningful, as what one would hear from Murray Perahia. Finally, the Aria da capo sounded just as it should, a return to the beginning, yet anything but. Bach’s material was transformed by the very act of performance as well as by his own extraordinary powers of musical transformation.

Mark Berry