Pianists are measured against one another by how they handle benchmark compositions. For instance, with their rigor and accessibility, Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations helped bestow master status upon Glenn Gould. When Hungarian pianist András Schiff sits at the keyboard in UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall, he will revisit those same Bach pieces.
This is the third data point for Schiff and Bach's laboratory of a composition: He first took the Goldberg Variations into the studio in 1983, producing a recording lauded for the subtleties it found in Bach but criticized for its mannered approach. After first recording the variations in 1955, Gould revisited them in 1981. And so, in 2002, Schiff returned to the work in a concert recording. Rather than teasing out details with careful playing, Schiff leaned back from the sheet music to engage the phrasal flow of Bach. Newfound decisiveness and clarity won over detractors and established Schiff as one of the foremost modern interpreters of Bach.
Schiff has since undertaken the monumental task of recording all 32 of Beethoven's sonatas, a process that has fed back into his approach toward Bach. This Chapel Hill concert comes a month before the end of Schiff's two-year Bach touring project, suggesting he has maxed out the measuring stick.
Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations in the final decade of his long life. They are the last part of the composer's project to produce an ideal example of every kind of keyboard music—his Clavier-Übung, or "keyboard exercise" catalog. For a piece that implies comprehensiveness, the Goldberg Variations have a murky origin myth, often quoted from an 1802 biography of the composer. Supposedly, Count Keyserlingk, a former Russian ambassador whose health was failing, made frequent visits to Leipzig. Suffering from insomnia, he would rouse his teenage servant, the talented harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to play and soothe his nerves in the wee hours of the morning. Any parent can imagine how pleasant that must've been.
Keyserlingk knew the Bach family well since Goldberg had studied with Bach's oldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. He asked the elder Bach to compose something upbeat for Goldberg to play, probably as much to keep Goldberg awake at the keyboard as to entertain the count. Bach's original title page for the variations bears this out, stating that they are "composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits."
But historians raise an eyebrow at this tale. Goldberg would have been 13 or 14 years old around the time the work was published. The variations, written for a two-keyboard harpsichord, are technically demanding even for an accomplished adult musician now, much less a teenager shaken awake at 3 a.m. The original title is the generic "Keyboard Exercise." Musicians nicknamed it the "Goldberg Variations" to differentiate it from the other "keyboard exercises" in Bach's oeuvre. Why didn't Bach explicitly dedicate the work to either the count or Goldberg?
Variations can sound mathematical and even slight. Though composers commonly establish a theme early in a composition in order to recast it emotionally or musically later, the variation removes the context of a larger composition like a sonata.
But the variation also presents a framework within which—and against which—one can be playful. For the Goldberg Variations, Bach took as his theme an aria he wrote for his wife 15 years earlier, permuting it through 30 variations all anchored to the same bass line. When the incredibly musical Bach family would gather, they'd joke (and likely drink) around the keyboards, crashing out incongruent musical themes to get a laugh. Schiff brings out some of this play now, while keeping the compositional line clear.
Schiff takes all this history, specious or not, and concomitant playfulness into account in his newly warm interpretations of the Goldberg Variations. Seeing through the notes and phrases, he now stays true to the composer's desire to refresh the spirits of a listener.
The pianist's measuring stick is put away, and this music is again for the audience.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Spirit for centuries."