There’s really nothing about the Goldberg Variations that necessitates addendum. Bach’s masterwork is resolute and exhilarating. But upon meeting the instrument on which he was to play the aria and 30 variations on 19th June, as a part of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s summer Bach Festival, Pierre Hantaï promptly added to the program.

Pierre Hantaï © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Pierre Hantaï
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

The instrument at hand couldn’t have been more appropriate without being an antique: a Kennedy double manual harpsichord, modeled after an 18th-century German design. Its demands made were for William Byrd’s The Woods so Wild and Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D minor and the English Suite no. 2 in A minor. The three selections were played without applause at the beginning of the concert, as if a suite of the artist’s devising. In anticipation of one of the great composer’s finest works, however, they could feel like little more than preamble. But they did give the ears opportunity to grow accustomed to Hantaï’s exquisite timing, the precision of his pauses, the gradients of his pulse, so as not to be distracted with marveling during the main attraction.

Hantaï had rushed back to the instrument for a quick tuning during the interval. One just about couldn’t ask for a quieter room in which to indulge in the understated voice of his instrument. The wooden interior of the Mary Flager Cary Hall in the DiMenna Center for Classical Music – which shares a building with the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen – is a windowless, basement auditorium with grooved walls and a vaulted ceiling. The keyboard’s soft, pristine voice was spared any competition from ventilation hum or errant outdoor sounds.

And while not a distraction, there was an added, sensorial diversion to the evening. Soft, sculptural lighting (created by theatre designer Burke Brown) drifted across the rippled wooden wall behind Hantaï as he played, suggesting the changing colors inside a church over the course of a day, as the sun crosses the sky and shines through the stained glass windows at varying angles. It was a sun that suited the variations quite well: purple pastels poured down into pillars for the slower sections, shifting into oranges and reds when the pace quickened, a thin blanket of artifice in a room so quiet that occasional noises from the audience seemed amplified.

Pierre Hantaï © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Pierre Hantaï
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Within that quietude, the opening aria began beautifully under fairly typical concert lighting, but almost immediately blues and reds were slowly drifting across the waves of wood behind Hantaï, who remained under white lights. It was perfectly dramatic yet subtle, almost hallucinatory, occupying the eyes while allowing the mind to float with the variations.

After the first few variations, Hantaï stepped into a surprising pace, never at the expense of the internal count, but surprising nonetheless, making even mid-tempo passages captivating. To be certain, this was, in part, dictated by the instrument – he didn’t have the luxury of the booming sustain of piano – but even still, he opted for a particularly jaunty read. In more fluid moments, he was willing to cluster a dissonant run into a softly resonating knot or give an isolated note a little extra time to shine. But for the most part, he was a rigid taskmaster. Playing from an annotated score in plastic sheets in a ringed binder that he flipped with a brisk confidence, Hantaï crafted, displayed, then crafted again the 30 variations on a theme.

During the final three variations before the return of the aria, the backlighting grew constant, drawing the gaze to the musician doing yeoman’s work, hammering every last nail, before a violet lights, a curtain of nightfall, drew behind him in a wonderfully elastic final aria. With such a perfect resolution, it was a pleasure that the encore had come at the outset.

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