Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Long regarded as the most serious and ambitious work for keyboard, the Goldberg Variations display J S Bach’s exceptional knowledge of the many different styles of music of his day, and his own exquisite performing techniques. Originating from a simple idea – a beautiful aria over a ground (repeating) bass – the thirty variations present the history of Baroque music in microcosm: lavish displays of modern, fashionable expressive elements of the high Baroque, with just a hint of Classical idealism, together with magnificent structure and formal beauty. There are dances and canons, riddles and doodles, lightning flashes and filigree arabesques. Not until Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations was a similar work conceived on such a scale from a seemingly simple initial idea.

First published in 1741, the work is named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a leading harpsichord player of the time. The urban myth surrounding the variations is that they were played by Goldberg to Count Kaiserling, former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, who was often ill and suffered from insomnia as a consequence. Goldberg played Bach’s variations to the Count to assuage his sleeplessness and to entertain him during the wee small hours.

The piece is eighty minutes long (when all the repeats are observed), and mostly in G major. By today’s standards, where concerts are usually divided into two halves of around 35 to 40 minutes each, with a variety of pieces of contrasting different keys, it may feel like a listening and performing marathon, but Bach’s ingenuity and inventiveness, his sense of pacing, drama and flow, contrapuntal skill, vast stylistic and emotional range, and the interweaving of the divine and the everyday ensure that the Goldberg Variations continually surprise and delight, drawing the listener into Bach’s miraculous and imaginative soundworld.

Autograph score of the Aria
Autograph score of the Aria

From the opening notes of the Aria, itself a miniature study in elegance and other-worldly serenity, Bach takes the listener on an extraordinary musical journey, one which is peppered with technical dizziness (easier on a double manual harpsichord, much harder on the piano where much intricate hand and finger gymnastics is required), varied time signatures, harmonies and textures, inner voices, surprising syncopations (yes, Bach is “jazzy”!), joy, wit, energy, enthusiasm, divinity, and even a Schumannesque dark night of the soul (in Variation 25). The return of the Aria at the end feels completely different from the first hearing: after it has undergone so many transformations, the simplicity of the original music is utterly wondrous. It is an opportunity to marvel and reflect on what has gone before, and, to quote pianist Jeremy Denk, “a sense that, at the end of something, it has all been worthwhile”.

In terms of recordings, for many (myself included) the benchmark remains Glenn Gould’s.

Aria played by Glenn Gould (1981 recording)

Gould's 1955 recording is that of an impulsive young man, replete with clear-cut rhythms, riveting articulation and acute attention to Bach’s counterpoint; in contrast, his 1981 recording, released shortly before his premature death, is more measured and reflective, with slower tempos and a mature gracefulness. Other notable recordings include those by Murray Perahia, Angela Hewitt and András Schiff (all on piano), and Andreas Staier (harpsichord). In the 1980s Dmitry Sitkovetsky arranged the Goldbergs for string orchestra and turned them into a tone poem, confirming that the greatness of the Goldbergs could go far beyond the keyboard. Subsequently, there have been transcriptions for solo harp, string trio and even an ensemble of Renaissance viols.

30th Variation – Sitkovetsky transcription

Pianists regard the Goldbergs as one of the highest Himalayan peaks of the standard repertoire (along with Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas), a mountain that few are prepared to scale. One of the finest exponents of this music is András Schiff, whose performance at the 2015 Proms received huge acclaim.

25th Variation – András Schiff

Every live performance is of course different and personal, and whenever I hear the Goldbergs in concert, I find something new and surprising in them. Purists believe Bach should never be played on the piano: I have only once heard the Goldbergs on the harpsichord when Mahan Esfahani played them at the Proms in 2011 (a double debut, as this was the first ever solo harpsichord recital in the history of the Proms, and Esfahani’s own Proms debut). He brought something new, fresh, revolutionary even, to this music, showing Bach’s rich and varied tapestry of writing, at times positively contemporary.

Closing Aria on harpsichord – Andreas Staier

Yet, nowhere did we lose sight of Bach’s original vision. And this perhaps is the most important job of the performer: to preserve Bach’s intent and inventiveness, while allowing the music to take flight. Regardless of the form of presentation – harpsichord or piano - the Goldberg Variations remain extraordinarily fertile terrain for those who dare to walk there.