Along with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Bach’s Goldberg Variations has become one of the most recognisable pieces of music ever written. But among these masterworks, the Goldbergs seem uniquely able to inspire obsession from both musicians and listeners alike.
Obsession can uncover fascinating new interpretations and perspectives, so we’ve gathered some of our favourite Goldbergs obsessives together to gain further insight into the full genius of Bach’s keyboard masterpiece, ahead of our national tour from 2-16 August.
More often than not “Glenn Gould” is the first name that comes up in relation to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and rightly so.
Gould’s ecstatic and ferocious first recording of the Goldbergs exploded into the public consciousness in 1955, making both the music and the eccentric Canadian a household name. But in the years that followed, Gould grew deeply dissatisfied with his original recording, a preoccupation that lingered throughout his life until 1981, just a year before his death, when he revisited the Goldberg Variations in the studio.
This new recording sent ripples throughout the music world, and Gould’s polarising recordings have been at the crux of many people’s personal fixation with the Goldbergs ever since. Fans of the ’81 recording have gone so far as to produce an excruciatingly detailed transcription of the performance, while more surface-level arguments over the merit of one recording over another rage on.
A precursor to Gould, Wanda Landowska was another groundbreaking musician who became utterly captivated by the virtuosity and artistic completeness of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
The Polish-French harpsichordist and musical academic is credited as a major player in the resurgence of both the Goldbergs and harpsichord music in general. Wanda stumbled upon the Goldbergs in her search for harpsichord music, and quickly became a champion for the piece which had been laying dormant for over 160 years. After giving the Goldbergs their first harpsichord recording 1933, Landowska, like Gould, was unable to fully let go of Bach’s composition. Sixteen years later, she revisited the piece in a new recording which is still considered by many in the harpsichord community to be a pinnacle moment in the Goldbergs’ history.
“It gives you that rare thing in human existence: a sense that, at the end of something, it has all been worthwhile.”
Pianist Jeremy Denk is another musician who found himself engulfed by the Goldberg Variations for large periods of time, and he has written at length about his internal battle between adoration for, and fear of, Bach’s keyboard masterpiece. The sensationally titled “Why I hate the Goldberg Variations” for NPR and “Bach’s Goldberg Variations caused me misery” for The Guardian offer the reader a glimpse into the technical and mental challenges that a performance of the Goldberg Variations presents to a performing musician, but both lead to the inevitable conclusion that, despite the struggle, the Goldbergs are a creation of timeless beauty.
Music critic for The New Yorker, Alex Ross’ musings on the Goldberg Variations demonstrate how deep the analysis of Bach’s composition can go.
In reviewing and comparing two harpsichord performances of the Goldberg Variations in last May’s New Yorker, Ross casually calls upon knowledge of a half dozen past recordings, the limits and benefits of harpsichords, and the characters and clashes of the two musicians, to paint a vivid and considered picture of the experience of each performance, and where they sit amongst the many others throughout history. With interrogation to this level, it’s no wonder musicians like Denk feel the immense pressure of the Goldbergs long before their first performance.
Already a Bach obsessive, Richard’s decision to explore the string arrangement of one of the most revered keyboard pieces ever written will undoubtedly stir cries of sacrilege. But though the reimagination of beloved pieces inevitably raises some eyebrows, there’s fruit to be found in re-exploring the familiar.
Just as the ACO transformed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in 2015, this fresh approach to the Goldberg Variations will allow audiences to hear one of the world’s great compositions in an entirely new way, and further deepen their appreciation of the genius of JS Bach.
Our upcoming Goldberg Variations tour reimagines Bach’s keyboard masterpiece in a performance featuring the Australian Premiere of Bernard Labadie’s arrangement for string orchestra. Details and tickets via the link below.