Angela Hewitt in Goldberg Variations

Angela Hewitt playing Goldberg Variations at Toronto Summer Music Festival at the Koerner Hall. Photo by James Ireland

There is a scene in Ian McEwan’s Saturday in which Angela Hewitt makes an appearance — indirectly, in a recording. The protagonist, an haute bourgeois surgeon Dr Perowne, likes listening to classical music in his operating theatre, and on one such occasion he puts on Bach’s Goldberg Variations on modern piano, played by Angela Hewitt. (McEwan has since shared in many interviews why he prefers Hewitt’s Bach best; Saturday is not among best books, but given that he’s written a lot of novels that take place in the past before Hewitt, the possibilities of placing her in other novels I suspect weren’t many.) Goldberg Variations has had an eventful career in literature. There is the Nancy Huston’s eponymous novel, and Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations. Thomas Bernhard also uses it in his bizarre Americanized fantasy of Glenn Gould, The Loser. McEwan however seems to have been gently–and rightly–insisting on decoupling the Goldberg from its most legendary proponent, Gould, and hearing it as very much an open, contemporary, everybody’s (not GG’s) work of art, and not an insurmountable massif.

The association it gives it in Saturday — with upper middle classes with refined leisure pursuits — is less fortunate and echoes the one that’s followed the Variations since the beginning. For the longest time it was accepted as true that Bach composed the work so an anxious insomniac noble could have his late nights and early mornings filled with entertainment, but that theory has since been demoted as apocryphal. It’s not certain who or why commissioned it and whether Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was in fact its first performer, but the piece was published mid-18th century and a few first edition copies still exist in the world. Its description was Keyboard exercise, consisting of an Aria with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals. The playing of a piece written for an instrument with upper and lower keyboards on a modern single-manual piano is fascinating to watch too, as hands do an incredible amount of crossing and fluttering about.

What struck me the most in Hewitt’s performance is the humanity of it. I expect the two extremes in the interpretation of the Variations on modern piano are 1 – the mechanical, super-precise, unsentimental roll-out (and the emotion will, proponents of this approach would tell you, communicate itself and take care of itself), and 2 – a post-Romantic take with a whole gamut of idiosyncrasies of what Gould mocked while commenting on his 1980s recording of Variations as a lot of piano-playing (eg. rubato, extreme contrasts, open sentiment, intimacy). Hewitt was closer to the 2, and I’m glad of it. There’s a huge difference between a live Goldberg and a recorded one, and not only because the recorded ones will be unrealistically polished: there’s a body present in a live concert and observing it negotiating the work’s twists and turns becomes an important dimension of the work itself. Hewitt’s nods, bright smiles, frowns, the raising of eyebrows, all added a dimension to the music.

Hewitt held the reins securely. In a couple of tangled spots the hold on the the ultrasonic speed of beat was tenuous — but mostly she was one with the piece, which she’s recorded and performed many times and plays from memory. Aria that opens the work was calm and embellished in moderation; when it returned at the end, it came more daringly ornamented, with appropriately messy hair after a wild ride.

The piano nerdery that accompanies the Goldberg can enhance the listening but is not essential. Here’s some of it. The initial Aria is the base from which variations are supposed to ensue, but only the baseline (left hand, lower pitch part of score) of the Aria is used for that purpose, not its melody – so what follows are variations only loosely. Soon enough Bach starts playing with the canon format – a unison canon on one keyboard (when the melody and its echo barging in are on same notes, octave up or down) at No. 3, Canon from the second (two notes difference between initial canon and its echo) in 6, Canone alla terza (a third up) at 9 et cetera with the gradual progression to nine notes distance and a switch to a new thing altogether, a quodlibet that quotes from the songs that the listeners of the era would have recognized, before finishing with the Aria. Each of these is followed by further variations, some specified for 2 keyboards, some for 1. None of this the listener needs to know to enjoy the piece. About 80 percent of Goldberg does not sound at all like a keyboard exercise, and the 20 percent that does is sandwiched amidst so much trippy beauty that you easily don’t notice it.

What’s the future of the Goldberg Variations? Not a huge number of pianists, harpsichordists and fortepianists are its advocates today, perhaps believing that it doesn’t need advocating what with the Gould colossus still casting its shadow. It is not often performed in Canada (I expect neither in the US) as it usually demands a concert with nothing else on the program and a passionate performer-advocate, not to mention a crowd of devoted Goldbergphiles who will come out for this work specifically. Perhaps future concerts will include video projections, lighting design, choreography, or choral transcriptions in the style of Accentus? Multiple performers on different keyboards? Why has this not happened yet? Perhaps because while preserved in aspic of admiration in recordings and literature, Goldberg Variations live performance is not on the up? I am surprised by how few people love it (while many more easily declare admiration).

In any case, Angela Hewitt is doing her part (and how) in keeping the GV alive and circulating, especially among the more easily distracted anglophone populations. Should she come with a Goldberg to a hall near you, don’t miss it.

2 thoughts on “Angela Hewitt in Goldberg Variations

  1. I think we get Goldberg Variations performances approximately every year in the Bay Area. We have many suitable venues and probably five or six presenting orgs wh would consider it in their wheelhouse: Cal Performances at UC Berkeley; SF Performances, which might put it at Herbst Theater or a church; Stanford Live; Great Performances in SF; SF Chamber Music; Early Music SF; Music @ Menlo; there must be an organization in San Jose as well.

    I saw Jeffrey Kahane perform the Have, on a program where he:

    – Gave a talk
    – Played the Goldbergs
    – Took a lunch break
    – Played the Diabelli Variations (!)
    – Took a short break
    – Did a Q&A, which he led off by saying, “Well, I never have to do THAT again!”

    He played both sets gorgeously.

    1. That’s nice, once a year sounds fairly frequent for NA. Those are all smallish venues, I take it?

      Getting it heard on harpsichord is another challenge – we usually have to wait for a HIP early music festival. Tafelmusik, a period band, does not program it because it gives them nothing to do, ofc.

      (Just spotted that Igor Levit and Ishan Esfahani both recorded it recently.)

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