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Bach, Goldberg Variations: Kenneth Weiss (Harpsichord), Paul Hall, Juilliard School, New York City, 31.01.2011 (SSM)

The senior music critic for the New York Times, Anthony Tomassini, recently completed a fascinating series of columns and videocasts in response to a teenager's question, "Who are the ten greatest classical composers?" Bach was rightly chosen to head this list. With this precedent in mind I hereby declare that within Bach's canon (no, not the variations marked Canone in the score!) the Goldberg Variations is his greatest instrumental work. I say instrumental rather than keyboard work because there are so many transcriptions for various instruments that to call it simply a keyboard work would be to limit its infinite manifestations. There are versions for organ, two pianos (a little known but wonderful performance based on a Max Reger transcription), harp, accordion, guitar, and even  a synthesizer. What is truly amazing is that some of these instrumental performances, on the accordion, for example, are really top notch. In contrast to his two other mature masterpieces, the Musical Offering and the Art of The Fugue, Bach at least specified on the cover of the Goldberg's first edition a default instrument: a "Clavecimbal mit 2 Manuelen". This all speaks to the greatness of the music, which is in fact as close to universal music as we have in the West.

Is there any other music strong enough to survive a range of tempi that runs the gamut of performance time from Glenn Gould's 38-minute 1959 Salzburg concert to Rosalyn Tureck's 94 minute 1957 performance? The time difference would still be substantial - almost twenty minutes - even if both had played all the repeats. Modern editions of the score show tempi designations as specific as Poco Andante, ma con moto and L'istesso movimento which have no basis in history. In the ur-text edition of the Goldberg Variations, Bach only gives two variations a traditional Italian named tempo: Number 15, marked Andante, and Number 22, marked Alla Breve

I would classify Kenneth Weiss's performance as close to the middle in terms of conservative to liberal interpretive decisions. Up until the famous "Black Pearl" variation, number 25, he took all the repeats. His omission of the repeats on the 25th, I think, was the right decision given the stately pacing of the work up to this point. After that he was a little helter-skelter, taking some repeats and dropping others, but all within the window of what is often done after the "intermission" of the 25th to bring the work to a dramatic conclusion.

Mr. Weiss seemed able at times to overcome the inherent limitations of the harpsichord by bringing out inner voices in variations such as the 3rd and 6th  At times I would have wanted a little more fire, for example, in the wonderful conversation that goes on in the 11th variation. There was some slight muddling in the 12th and 17th, but this might have been the fault of the harpsichord, an otherwise bright-sounding copy of a Flemish Ruckers. Mr. Weiss worked the stops for almost every movement, which may have led to longer than desired pauses between the final variations. He also handled deftly the tricky 14th variation which, when played at a fast tempo, often ends up sounding as if the right and left hands didn't quite reach the finish line together.

There is a well known but apocryphal story written by Bach's first biographer, Johann Forkel, fifty years after Bach's death as to the genesis of the Goldberg Variations. Forkel states that Bach was asked to compose this work by a nobleman so that it could be played nightly by his harpsichordist-in-residence named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. The music was meant to act as a soporific to cure the Count's insomnia.  It would be hard to imagine anyone falling asleep to this majestic music.
Stan Metzger

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