As we left last night’s concert, my companions and I had a discussion about what sort of music we prefer when we can’t get to sleep. Is it better to listen something calming and absorbing, or do you accept the wakefulness and pick lively music that will perhaps help you to get up and do something? The story goes that Bach wrote what became known as the Goldberg Variations for a young harpsichordist who had been engaged to play for an insomniac aristocrat, but Lars Vogt’s spirited performance of the collection at Sage Gateshead last night suggested to me that he has discarded this fanciful tale.

Lars Vogt © Giorgia Bertazzi
Lars Vogt
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Vogt preceded the Goldbergs with another set of pieces that were not named by their composer, as it was Schubert’s publisher who decided to give the name 'Impromptu' to the four pieces that now make up D899. The dramatic opening chord of no.1 in C minor allowed Vogt a momentary grand gesture, then he drew us in close to whisper the fragile melody in our ears, treating the music with exquisite care, as if it were something precious that might break. Despite this delicacy, there was nothing sentimental about Vogt’s reading of the Impromptus, something what was particularly noticeable in the third. The lyrical melody was initially overwhelmed by the accompanying quavers, but eventually it separated itself to stand a little detached, stepping away from the intimacy of the first movement to give a sudden sense of space.

Impromptu is an apt description for the way Lars Vogt plays; his music making is always fresh and spontaneous, nothing is forced, and so it was this evening. There was some deliciously stretchy rubato in the opening theme of the first impromptu; the second began with carefree bounces in the left hand under relaxed triplets, and after a sense of world-weariness in the middle of the fourth, Vogt suddenly allowed a relaxed, improvisatory mood to come through at the end. There were nicely executed shifts of mood in the second impromptu too, and at one point Vogt was overlaying its sunny opening mood with the more agonised theme that followed to such an extent that it seemed that there were two players in action.

 

Some people have strong opinions about what instrument the Goldberg Variations, published by Bach under the simple title of “Keyboard practice”, should be played on. I personally enjoy hearing them played on a piano, because the lines of the counterpoint become much clearer, and although it’s true that a Steinway concert grand certainly wouldn’t have been in Bach’s mind when he wrote them, Vogt played as though he were using a much older instrument, always crisp, with sharp runs and a light tone, and he ornamented the opening aria as heavily as if he were playing a harpsichord.

In the faster movements, Vogt’s Goldbergs were alert and zingy, with the bass line that forms the basis of the variations always clearly delineated. As is essential for Bach, the music never stopped dancing, although at times, listening to Vogt was like watching Olympic figure-skating, when you watch amazed, wondering how anyone can keep control and remain elegant at such dazzling speeds. The secret seemed to lay in the way that Vogt used the bass line to create an stillness at the heart of the music, a centre of gravity for anchoring the dizzying spins. The darker variations, such as 15, 22 and above all, 25, were always followed by particularly light, refreshing playing , so that although Vogt had allowed us to linger on the more serious moments, he was also eager that we should continue the journey. 

Of those more sombre variations, number 15 was absorbing and unfussy, and in number 21 Vogt squeezed out the chromatics in the bass line. The darkest and most emotionally complex movement, number 25, returned us to the mood of the first of the Schubert pieces, magically expressive and intimate but never indulgent. The Goldbergs allow pianists plenty of scope to stamp their personality on the music, and Vogt was no exception, infusing his Goldbergs with playfulness, but here at the heart of it, he stepped away, and left Bach and his music to speak for themselves.

By the time Vogt reached the last few variations, he was in a light-hearted mood and letting off steam. The heavily accented beats in number 28 suggested a ticking clock and number 29 had a decidedly bawdy air to it, with cheeky flourishes. Finally in number 30 Vogt just emphasised the simple folk song, letting it sing out amongst all the frills. Vogt’s opening Aria had been perky, full of the optimism at the beginning of a journey, but in the closing repeat, Vogt brought what had been at times quite an exhausting trip to a wonderfully peaceful and tranquil end.

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