Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1741) has rightly entered the domain of musical myth. By all evidence Bach believed that music was essential to display and understand the majesty of God’s creation. Music was of ethical and even cosmological importance for him. The Bach expert John Butt states, in Bernard Sherman’s Inside Early Music (Oxford University Press, 1997), that Bach "sees music as being part of a mechanical process by which humankind comes to terms with the divine....It’s organization, what you might think of as cultured religion, as opposed to personal and more immediate religion." Butt views Bach’s type of faith as "one that looks for godly order on earth" and thus in some ways is allied to what today is called pantheism. This noted expert concludes that Spinoza’s term, "’the intellectual love of God’ seems remarkably appropriate for Bach."
Of course, many listeners enjoy the Goldberg Variations for more earthly purposes. The conductor Leonard Bernstein claimed that he and his wife considered the opening aria "their song," a kind of love theme. Others play it as exalted background music, which may be closer to one legend about the work’s origins. An early biographer of Bach posited that it was written for one of the composer’s gifted students, named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to play for the Russian ambassador to the Saxon court, who suffered from insomnia. The notion of this "Aria and 30 Variations," written for a harpsichord with two keyboards, soothing a distressed diplomat to sleep has charmed generations of music lovers.
Only recently have specialists awaken to the obvious fact that apart from the beautifully lulling air that begins the piece, this is hardly sleepytime fare. A careening assertion of mastery and virtuosity, the Goldberg Variations were for many years thought unplayably difficult. That is, until they were performed and recorded in 1933 by Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska on her specially built Pleyel instrument that sounded like a jangly upright piano. In 1955, another upright jangly piano, Canadian virtuoso Glenn Gould’s, was used for an epochal bestselling record that is still available today, alongside Gould’s later rethinking of the same piece (1981). With his weird humming, brilliant insights, and eccentric observations, Gould could seem like a Bobby Fischer of the music world. Yet his Goldberg Variations shared with Landowska’s an acerbic quality, of excluding human imperfection through sheer ability. Both artists proved that what seemed impossible could be played well, and that Bach’s mighty challenge to posterity could be met.
Part of the lasting mystery of the Goldberg Variations is the many faces and forms the work can have. Played with or without indicated repeats of certain passages, its length can vary from around eighty minutes to half as long. Harpsichordists after Landowska, most notably George Malcolm (on l’Oiseau-Lyre, sadly out of print) and Pierre Hantai (on Opus 111) have joyously affirmed the original sound and scale of the work. Pianists like Peter Serkin (on Pro Arte) have rejoiced in the full dynamic range of their instruments. There have even been recorded versions for the Canadian Brass. Now another virtuoso pianist, the Bronx-born Murray Perahia, has entered the fray, on a new CD Murray Perahia Plays Bach’s Goldberg Variations (Sony Classical).
Perahia carries a legend of his own as baggage, from his early days as mop-haired player of romantic music by Chopin and Schumann, through later discipleship to a variety of musical greats including Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Georg Solti, and Vladimir Horowitz. Now past fifty, Perahia recently saw his career interrupted for a few years by a persistently infected thumb, which gave him time to study scores, the Goldberg Variations presumably among them. The results are a warmly domestic version, that one can imagine being played in an elegant home, if not necessarily at bedtime. For this polished, yet intimate approach, Perahia may have been influenced by one of his teachers, the late Mieczylaw Horszowski, a dapper virtuoso who was still playing in public at age 101. Horszowski gave a humane, breathing quality to Bach, full of deft touches and relaxed moments. Perahia’s intense brightness may lack some of his mentor’s humor, and he adds a certain edge or point that differs from his ultra-gentle playing of the past.
In earlier years, Perahia could seem so genteel as to sound wilting, and his recordings with the assertive Georg Solti could sound like an aural equivalent of the Rape of the Sabine Women. No such overdelicacy is audible in these Goldbergs: the amount of bite and attitude, in the Landowska tradition, might have been mulled over during the pianist’s enforced retirement. Whatever its origin, this slight degree of temperament keeps the work from appearing too overtly as an intellectual exercise, divine or otherwise. Whether or not Goldberg really had anything to do with them-some critics today claim he was not even Bach’s pupil-the music, especially in performances of this quality, seems likely to fascinate as long as anything else by Bach, which is to say as long as any human artistic achievement lasts.