Variations Galore! Bradley Brookshire Plays Buxtehude and Bach

United StatesUnited States Buxtehude, Bach: Bradley Brookshire (harpsichord), The Church of the Epiphany, New York, 25.3.2015 (SSM)

Presented by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts

Buxtehude: Partite diverse sopra l’aria “La Capricciosa”
Bach: Goldberg Variations


Bradley Brookshire was the replacement for the originally scheduled harpsichordist, Giuseppe Schinaia, whose tour was cancelled due to a hand injury. Announcing that he might not have made the right decision in choosing the Goldberg Variations, Mr. Brookshire said, almost under his breath, that he was playing them because he loved them.

A telling number is the one that appears on Amazon when you look up recordings of “Bach Goldberg Variations”: 870 results. This is a far-out total because reprints, special editions and MP3 versions make up a large part of it. Nonetheless, it’s indicative of the work’s ubiquity. How strange to think that it was mostly neglected until the 1955 recording by Glenn Gould became a best-selling album.

Given the GV‘s popularity, it shouldn’t be surprising that some interpretations are more “creative” than performances of other works. The GV has been transcribed for string trio, harmonica, Moog synthesizer and harp. It has been turned into a loving parody in performances by Uri Caine. And liberties abound. Glenn Gould’s chosen tempi in his first recording were considered either too fast or too slow. He takes no repeats and finishes in 55 minutes. How slow does he go? The infamous Variation No. 25 is so slow that it takes up almost a quarter of the entire performance.

Brookshire began the GV in the very common early Baroque keyboard practice of opening a suite with an improvised, loose and frilly prelude. It could be entitled toccata, fantasie or capriccio as well since they are all basically the same: an invitation to the performer to feel free to do what he wants. Bach did not use these terms or, for that matter, tempo markings except for a few in the final variations. Not that Brookshire needed permission, but he did posit the idea that the slow tempo of a sarabande allowed for improvisation, and that the aria was in fact a sarabande. He did this before each binary segment. As he went along, he imaginatively ornamented the repeats but never improvised, as he did in the opening statement.

There was a freeness to the performance that was quite winning. This was a reading that was the complete opposite of the rigid, mechanical playing of Wanda Landowska on her heavy-handed Pleyel. It also was far from the overdrive tempi of Gould. Variety abounded with frequent use of the stops and the couplers to the second manual to give some of the variations special coloring.

An intermission split the GV into two sections, but the second part had to be cut short because of time restraints. Brookshire would be able to complete the variations if he dropped the repeats and, sadly, he had to ignore the da capos in the score (although he did do some). It was clear that his enthusiasm as well as the enthusiasm of the audience, particularly those who shouted “Do the repeats,” was dampened. Many have played the GV with or without repeats but few with Brookshire’s imagination and brilliance. I must have 25 versions of the GV, but if Brookshire recorded his performance I would happily place it near the top of the pile.

Buxtehude, whose small but sparkling keyboard works fit on three CDs, is a composer who is, unfortunately, overlooked. The delightful variations on the aria “la Capricciosa” give a strong impression of being the source of Bach’s GV. Brookshire’s free style of playing was well-suited to the music of the man Bach admired, and who is to be thanked for providing Bach with the groundwork to write his own monumental set of variations.

Stan Metzger 

Leave a Comment