Ever since Glenn Gould’s best-selling recording was released in 1955, Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ have been so popular as to be almost crossover fare.
Yet Gould was taking a liberty in transposing the work to the piano: before him, this massive aggregation of keyboard virtuosity had been confined to the harpsichord - for which it was written – and as such had been the province of scholars. And whether or not it was composed to allow a brilliant young harpsichordist to serenade his sleepless employer – that pleasant story is probably apocryphal – Bach’s statement of intent did indeed suggest exclusivity: ‘composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits’.
Following Gould’s lead this work has been translated into many other sound-worlds, including string quartets, orchestras, and even the harp. Its essentially percussive aesthetic may not lend itself to bowed strings, though at some points the harp seems oddly appropriate. But the real debate turns on a stark choice: harpsichord or piano?
Andras Schiff, whose ECM recording is admirably eloquent and thought-through, believes an hour and a quarter of unadulterated harpsichord is just too long: listeners need the piano’s richer sonic fare. Andreas Staier is a leading champion of the harpsichord, and he prefaced his Wigmore recital with an interview on Radio 3’s ‘Music Matters’ in which he persuasively argued his instrument’s case. It all boiled down to tone colour, he said: with two manuals and a variety of stops, you can highlight the intricately-woven voices in a way the one-manual piano can never do.
Beginning and ending with an exquisitely ornamented Aria, the work describes a vast circle with toccatas, elegant character-pieces, and polyphonic canons coming round repeatedly in patterns of three. Staier’s approach was altogether too brisk and businesslike, and it wasn’t until the first climactic variation – the fifteenth – that he (literally) pulled the emotional stops out, choosing a lute-effect for Bach’s sudden foray into desolation. The 25th – Wanda Landowska’s famous ‘black pearl’ – became the occasion for Staier’s next experiment with colour, with the lower manual in theorbo-mode and the upper one singing plangently. Thereafter, as the work became progressively more uplifting, Staier’s playing at last seemed to flower, and when he completed the circle both he and the Aria seemed transformed. But Gould and Schiff still get my vote.