by Jeff Karlson
Johann Sebastian Bach is among the most celebrated composers to have ever lived, and for good reason. His prolific contribution of over a thousand compositions to the catalog of Western music is staggering to comprehend, especially considering that between the countless hours of composing, rehearsing, and performing, he somehow found time to proliferate in other avenues of life; he and his wife had 20 children. Not only did Bach glorify the church with his countless hymns, five masses, and a Christmas Oratorio that rivals Handel’s Messiah, but he also provided secular audiences with marvels of musical games, partitas, concerti, and even a cantata that is entirely about the delight of sipping a hot cup of coffee. Bach’s music is so highly revered that he was given the honor of having not just one, but three of his works imprinted on the Golden Record aboard the Voyager satellite, which is currently speeding its way into the depths of interstellar space waiting for some unsuspecting intelligent alien lifeform to stumble upon it and experience the wonder of Bach as we know him.
A person could literally spend days listening to all of Bach’s music without repeating a selection, but the one piece that I keep finding myself listening to over and over is the Goldberg Variations. When I first heard them, I had no idea they were by Bach. (And no, that’s not because I wasn’t paying attention during my undergraduate music history class.) Actually, I imagine my introduction to the work might be similar to many cinema lovers. Do you remember the scene in the film The Silence of the Lambs, when Dr. Lecter had a cassette player going while he was getting ready to enlist the help of Sgt. Pembry in his escape from his temporary cell? Yes, it was actually Bach who provided the calm and calculated soundtrack to that horrifying scene, but don’t let its association with a notorious fictional cannibal spoil your appetite for tasteful music. In fact, I would suggest that as you prepare to listen, that you take a seat in your favorite chair and pour yourself a glass of fine wine, perhaps a nice Chianti.
No performer has etched their name onto a piece of music quite as definitively as Glenn Gould has on the Goldberg Variations, but his recordings are not the ones I’ll be reviewing today; I think that well has been thoroughly tapped. However, before you read on, you must give a quick listen to the “Aria” on his 1981 recording. Turn the volume up and listen carefully. It would have been a profound experience to have been in that recording booth listening to one of the greatest artists alive performing one of the most beautiful works from history, and then to hear him hum his own countermelody under the one that Bach wrote. Sublime.
A few years ago, I was specifically looking for a new recording of the Goldberg Variations. I scrolled through the Apple Music library, selecting the “Aria” by any given artist. If it didn’t grip me after the first few bars, I’d scroll on to the next. When it comes to Goldberg, I am terribly picky. The tempo can’t be too fast, the ornaments can’t be too frantic, the stroke of the piano key requires finesse. No, no, no, none of these recordings will do! As I moved on from album to album, I was just waiting to hear how the next one would disappoint me – that is, until I landed on Beatrice Rana. Three seconds of silence begins the track, which makes my ear salivate over the first taste of the thirty-two course delicacy I am about to savor. The recording is so clean that I can’t even hear the sound of the air in the room, which makes the first notes appear to arise from nothingness. It’s as if I am listening from inside the soundboard of the piano itself. Rana’s tempo is perfect: unhurried, reflective. Her delicate touch of the keys flawlessly meets the demand that the “Aria” be a piece to which one could drift into blissful sleep while listening. Ah yes, this will do.
Rana’s choice of rubato comes at stark contrast to that of Glenn Gould. His interpretation is decidedly more accurate to the Baroque period, as he keeps his tempos strict enough to set a clock to. However, the way Rana executes her rubato feels as natural as rainfall. She’ll extend certain notes just ever so slightly as they roll into the next bar, never breaking the momentum of the piece. It’s as if each note really is like rain, but perhaps more aptly in a forest: here and there a dewy droplet is about to roll off the point of a leaf, yet its viscous attraction keeps it suspended in defiance of gravity for the tiniest fragment of time before the earth pulls it to the ground. Carry this analogy with you as you listen to each variation and you’ll find that Beatrice Rana is extraordinarily consistent with her execution of it.
If the “Aria” is music to fall asleep to, Variation 5 is the point at which we hit our REM cycle. The tempo is dizzyingly virtuosic with sixteenth note flurries in the right hand while the left hand tackles a slower melody, which continuously leaps from bass to treble, requiring it to cross back and forth over the right hand throughout the variation. I am completely struck by the level of independence Rana is able to give to each line. One would think that the sheer consumption of brain power from the right hand would leave the other hand with merely the responsibility of keeping up, but Rana requires her left hand to devote precisely as much intention to its performance as she does her right. The left-hand melody is very simple: quarter notes establish the chord for each bar, punctuated by a pair of eighth notes to give it a little pivot to the next chord. Rana gives this simple mechanism real life by holding each quarter note for as long as it can possibly be held, as if the note is a glass being filled with water to the point at which the surface tension is the only thing keeping it from brimming over. Then she treats each eighth note with a sharp staccato, like an exclamation point. This provides for the effect of a crescendo through each quarter note, which on a piano is otherwise an impossibility.
Bach gives Variation 10 the title of “Fughetta” which simply means “Little Fugue.” I could go on and on about Bach’s sheer genius when it comes to fugues, but I think I’ll save that for another review at a later time. For now, all you need to know is that Bach is really, really good at writing them. Not to be outdone by Bach’s genius, Rana gives her own thoughtful input on what this fugue should sound like. The theme is a delightfully bouncy one, with frilly ornamentation supported by simple walking countermelody. The first time through the A section she chooses a soft dynamic and a marcato articulation for the quarter notes, but the second time around she flips both choices on their heads, this time opting for a more robust dynamic and a tenuto articulation, threading each note seamlessly to the next. Rana is telling us that these aren’t just notes on the page – this is music.
We’re now at the exact middle of the work, Variation 15, and Bach has prepared something truly delicious for us to savor. This variation is called “Canone a la Quinta (in moto contrario).” It is a canon, but the second voice is not in unison with the first. Instead, Bach writes it up a fifth from the original; its motion is contrary to its predecessor, meaning that after the first voice goes down, the second voice heads upward. The beauty of this piece is that it ends with the equivalent of a musical question mark. In fact, the first half of the variation leaves us on the seventh scale degree, which serves to make our craving for the second half all the more potent. Rana performs the final notes of the variation with all of the delicacy she can muster as they ascend to a pianissimo high D, which sounds like we’re staring curiously up toward the top of a staircase that disappears into the clouds. A full ten seconds of silence on the end of the track allows the last note to sit on our pallet as we digest the beauty of what we’ve just heard.
Variation 25 is the last one to be written in a minor key (Variations 15 and 21 were the only other variations in G minor). Here, Bach demonstrates his mastery of the Aeolian mode as he bends it to his will to create a work so full of chromaticism that one could mistake it for one of Chopin’s Nocturnes (except Chopin wouldn’t touch a piano for roughly another 80 years after the Goldberg Variations were published). Here is where I would offer my first bit of criticism to Beatrice Rana. (Yes, I know I tend to be a hopeless optimist, but if I’m going to be writing reviews, I have to be willing to dole out a critique every once in a while!) Perhaps Rana was musically swept away to the romantic period along with all of us by Bach’s compositional genius, but I think she takes her rhythmic liberties too far in this variation. There… I said it.
The final variation is a “Quadlibet” which is a Latin term meaning “Whatever you wish.” Compositionally it is a lighthearted combination of multiple themes, which Bach makes sound like a musical celebration of his completion of such a monumental work, and all wrapped up in a nice, tidy, perfect little package. However, at the very end, written underneath the final bar, you’ll read “Aria da Capo e Fine.” At Bach’s direction, Beatrice Rana takes us back to where it all began, and just when you thought she couldn’t possibly play with a lighter touch, she manages to redefine pianissimo. To hear the “Aria” once again, after all of the twists and turns that Bach has made to its skeleton throughout the entire work, is a true gift. We hear it now with a new understanding of how it was put together. Bach has given us a glimpse into how his mind works, and perhaps he also figured out how to help us hear his music as he heard it.
Find more information about Beatrice Rana's recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations HERE