A Performer’s Survey of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Part 2

Beth Levin

[February 2007.]

Closer to my performance date and under a heightened sense of purpose, I offer a few ideas on Variations 11-20.

Variation XI

A gigue in 12/16 time, Variation XI dances elegantly in long strands of 16th notes overlapping so often as to require sleight of hand. Kirkpatrick offers many ways out of the dilemma but I find myself enjoying the direct confrontation, one hand simply moving up or in on the keyboard to allow the other to scamper past. The rhythm gallops yet there is a delicacy to the line best served by a thin texture. A smattering of trills and arpeggios adds to the player’s sense of risk as well as to the joy.

Variation XIICanone alla Quarta or Canon on the 4th

Mark Peterson, organist extraordinaire and Director of Music at Barton College writes:

“I am always astonished and delighted when the second part opens with an inversion of the opening subject, which is then inverted right-side up! In many Bach binary forms the ‘B’ section opens with a flipped version of the ‘A’ section, but here the unbelievable canonic writing turns it into a house of mirrors. Christoff Wolff considers Bach the Isaac Newton of music.”

I would add only that the repeated quarter notes in the bottom voice infuse the variation with a regal quality. The result is not so much a dance as a processional.

Variation XIII

A transcendent arioso, an entryway to a dream state. Everything preceding has led to a point where we close our eyes and imagine paradise. The player sees herself as a conduit for thoughts and feelings from beyond, and yet one must dare to be bold.

Variation XIV

A powerful mordent on the first beat returns us to terra firma. Curly-tailed trills and 32nd notes span the keyboard in quicksilver timing. The rhythm’s sheer physicality leaves us panting.

Variation XV

Here the descending two-note slurs (ah me, ah me) portray sorrow, perhaps even despair. G minor, the set’s first use of the minor mode, corroborates the emotional landscape. Hope emerges via a soaring, gravity-defying counterpoint. Best to recall that Bach composed for the glory of God.

The second half, beginning with the bass line as leader, must equal the other voices in presence and buoyancy. One poignant effect occurs in the final measure as a tied note is suspended in air, pleading for and receiving resolution.

Variation XVI

Heralding part two of the Goldberg Variations, this French Overture greets us with its sharp dotted rhythms, scalar flourishes and ornate trills. Count Keyserlingk’s insomnia averted, Herr Goldberg is given the means to forge ahead with renewed enthusiasm. I find that playing the 16th a bit late after the dotted eighth produces a double dotted effect that works well throughout.

The Overture’s second half is in a quick 3/8, fugal and intricately voiced. The bass line often assumes a masterful role. As throughout the work, one’s ear must be alert to equality of voices. Beyond that lies the challenge of infusing each voice with its own distinctions. They say Maria Yudina accomplished that. In fear of her mystical powers, it is also reported that after she refused to play for Stalin he did not, as expected, order her snuffed.

Variation XVII

Here the variation is clearly intended for an instrument with two keyboards. The pianist is obliged to dodge and dart, refinger and maneuver. However, following merely two motives as compared with three and four elsewhere encourages a sense of freedom. The music’s spirited energy permits the hands to romp.

Variation XVIII

Cut time, canon at the sixth: Propelling the motive forward only to dawdle briefly across the bar line, tied notes achieve their maximum effect in voices I and II. With respect to touch, eighth notes should be arrayed distinctively, creating a sense of transparency. The bass line adds its own lighthearted feel. If a variation is slow and morose the next will be bright and brisk: a simple idea in a great work of art.

Variation XIX

A Passepied, an elegant dance in 3/8 — requiring charm, delicacy and, again, transparency of voices. One works at expressing each variation’s character, keeping each motive alive (although “dropping” a voice can happen even with the best of players), and imbuing each motive with its distinctions. Above that is the task of timing the work in order to achieve an emotional totality. If the listener departs unmoved, the player has failed in achieving this end.

Variation XX

With its energy, élan and virtuoso writing, another variation intended for two keyboards operates as a tour de force. All of one’s pianistic skills are called upon to illuminate the power, speed and touch of the running triplets in both hands. The opening measures express the basic harmony of the Aria in a unique pattern of eighths and 16ths, one hand propelling the other. Another clever version of broken chords occurs at measures 25-28, resulting in a feeling of ultimate release.

I will end for now on this mountaintop, looking ahead to the final ten.

 

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