Posts for:  January 2011

Legendary Variations

Simone Dinnerstein playing J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations

Legends surround J.S. Bach’s legendary Aria with Thirty Variations, BWV 988. One well-known tale has Bach composing it at the request of Count von Keyserlingk in Dresden, who suffered from chronic insomnia. The idea was for Johann Goldberg, the count’s young harpsichordist (and a student of Bach’s) to play it at night, to help lull Kayerserlingk to sleep.

Although no firm historical evidence backs this story up, I can see why it became popular. The first time I heard the Goldberg Variations, I was a teenager, invited to hear a performance given by a harpsichordist at a museum. Sitting in the cavernous auditorium, I heard mainly an endless jangle of G major. I was too young to form an educated opinion at the time, but the piece did seem long and monotonous enough to put one to sleep.

A more modern legend comes in the form of a man, one of the most famous proponents of the Goldberg Variations, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. Gould’s 1959 recording of the piece is revolutionary, brilliantly fast, and possesses the precision of a gorgeous machine. Gould possessed one of the most eccentric personalities in music, too -– painfully reclusive, he eventually gave up playing in public except through the medium of the L.P. recording. He became so unkempt that Leonard Bernstein’s wife had to wash his hair under the bathtub spigot when he came to visit. The eccentricities only added to the legend.

I wonder if the pianist who removes himself to the isolation of the recording studio is as deserving of ongoing legendary status as the pianist whose platform is the unadorned stage, with breathing, wide-awake human beings sitting in the audience, expecting magic.

A month ago, I heard a pianist who stepped into this most challenging arena with nothing but herself, a new Steinway concert grand, and a glass of water. No score, no do-overs, no editing help. Simone Dinnerstein, whose career ascended after her debut recording of the Goldberg Variations climbed to the top of Billboard’s Classical chart, gave a performance of the Goldberg Variations at the Church of the Holy Trinity at Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, for the benefit of Astral Artists, the non-profit organization which did much to nurture her career.

I sat in the keyboard-side balcony with Tom, girding patience –- I had found the deliberate slowness of much of Dinnerstein’s recording to require an almost meditative state of concentration.

Maybe her tempi were faster in live performance, but one thing was for sure –- she commanded my ear from first note to last. Yes, she did take every repeat of every variation, but the effect, while remaining largely introspective, was compelling. I might have wished for a bit more tonal variation in the brilliant, fast variations, and I would have welcomed a greater invention of ornamentation, but overall, I found her performance mesmerizing and masterful. She demonstrated the power of a quiet personality who persuades through the strength of her unsparing inquiry and understanding.

It is said that Anna Magdalena, Bach’s cherished second wife, a soprano, loved the Aria of the Goldberg Variations so much that she hand-copied it into her music notebook. This Notebook, started by Johann Sebastian so that Anna Magadelena could become proficient at keyboard instruments, remains, some 300 years later, a necessary part of every young pianist’s repertoire. This legend surrounding Anna Magdalena and her Aria is, like Ms. Dinnerstein’s performance, one I’m happy to believe.