The story goes that Bach wrote his Goldberg Variations to beguile an insomniac, the Russian ambassador to the court of Saxony. Not to put him to sleep, however daunting 30 pieces based on a touching little minuet may seem. Bach ensured enough variety of character, from tender reflection to displays of athletic brilliance, to keep anyone alert. The Goldbergs are the summation of Bach's keyboard writing, and it would be a brave person who contested their claim to be the greatest of all keyboard variations.
Murray Perahia has been studying Bach for some time, particularly during his recent period away from the concert platform, when he was suffering from a mysterious thumb injury - now, thankfully, cured.) So it is taken for granted that he is thoroughly at home with Bach's style - or rather, the full range of his styles - and with the intricate niceties of ornamentation. His ornamentation on Monday was impeccable.
It is also expected that he, the most limpid-sounding of pianists, should achieve the necessary clarity of part-playing, though in a big space such as the Royal Festival Hall, his sometimes uninhibited contrasts of volume dazzled the ears. In Variation 11, his alternations of loud and soft seemed a little for the sake of it, and the fastest notes became a burble, albeit pleasing.
All but one of the variations are divided in half, each half to be repeated. But in some variations Perahia ignored the repeats. What is interesting is that, although every third variation is a canon, in which one melody copies itself at a fixed interval that grows wider in each successive canon, there is otherwise no overall plan to the work. There are points, though, when an audience feels the tension holds from one variation to the next, and times when listeners sense something like the end of a paragraph has been reached.
On Monday they felt that a brief pause was warranted, quite naturally, at the end of Variation 15, before the grand French Overture, which Perahia launched with a magnificent show of proud confidence. They were caught coughing, though, at the end of the expressively laden and emotionally exhausting Variation 25, when he slipped into the following number very softly, flitting through it like a shadow until he made a crescendo towards the end. It was so delicious that ignoring the repeats seemed like self-denial.
By way of warming up before the variations, he played four of Busoni's rather gruff and bass-heavy arrangements of Bach's chorale preludes, originally for organ. Anyone who remembers the chaste containment of Myra Hess or Dinu Lipatti may have wondered at Perahia's romantic relaxation in "Sleepers wake" and "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland", while to my ears, "Nun freut euch" slithered by too fast, like a finger study. But then Perahia's fingers are pretty wonderful.
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