An Intimate and Idiosyncratic Goldberg Variations in Southern California

United StatesUnited States Bach, Goldberg Variations: Mark Robson (piano), Boston Court Performing Arts Center, Pasadena, California, 10.3.2017. (DLD)

Bach’s Goldberg Variations occupies a special spot in the solo keyboard literature. Since Glenn Gould first recorded it in 1955 – and then returned to the studio for a second version in 1981 – it has held a singular and sanctified place in the repertory. At one time there were over 200 individual recordings in the definitive (and now defunct) Schwann Catalogue, and it has established itself as a test of a performer’s interpretative breadth, technical prowess, and stamina. Indeed, it represents a kind of musical Mount Everest along with Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ piano sonata and Liszt’s B-minor sonata: one of the craggy and perilous virtuosic peaks in the piano canon.

There is a certain didactic – in the best possible meaning of that term – quality to the Goldberg Variations. Bach laid the variations out in an ingenious structure that presents the theme and follows with sets of two variations, which are in turn followed by a canon, a canon that rises a step with each return. This system of two variations and a widening canon continues throughout the work; the enormity of the variety within these tightly restricted circumstances is just one of its miraculous and unending pleasures.

Robson’s overall approach to this challenge was remarkably more pianistic than harpsichordic: melodic lines that sang in an unabashed romantic manner and pedals that were depressed early and often, creating music that sometimes suggested a closer alliance to Chopin than to Bach. The tempi, too, were less rigid and structured than those found in the many performances I’ve heard. Sometimes the effect was exciting and bracing: Variation 26 features a rapid bass line that swims through the texture at a terrifying tempo (I swear I heard a gasp from a member of the audience), while a very staid and steady hand in control restates the original theme with almost military precision.

On other occasions, the textures were overly gauzy and obscured by the pedaling. In the aforementioned Variation 26, it sometimes seemed as if the relentless pulse was lost in action. Variation 12, a canon at the fourth, started surely and firmly with repeated quarter notes, but they became obscured and lost in a milky texture by the third beat. There might be other quibbles with the interpretation that I could add, but in light of the performance’s many beauties, those objections are as much about me and my personal expectations as they are about the performance.

The great minor-key variations, numbers 15, 21, and 25, stand out from the pack, not only with their with their dark hues and solemn intensity but. in an odd way, with a modal coloration that offers a kind of emotional relief. All three are music-making of the highest order, but Robson’s adagio (25) offered no consolation or comfort, only an understanding of truths that need be borne. Yet, what great music and what wonderful playing! And another bravo to The Boston Court Performing Arts Center, their wonderfully eclectic programming, and a sensibility that understands piano programs with pieces like this need no crowd-pleasing tokens and baubles.

The reader will certainly recognize my reservations about this performance. But while these may not have been my Goldbergs, the time spent with a keyboard master like Mark Robson and this singular masterpiece is too rare a pleasure, one that may be questioned and argued (I was in a group of four questioning and arguing devotees), but is an experience to be savored and cherished.

Douglas Dutton

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