J. S. Bach: Goldberg Variations

Written by Michael Barrett

Associate Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Song of the Day

Published April 13, 2017

I’ve been drawn closer and closer to Bach lately. Maybe he’s the only antidote I have to our perilous and uncertain times. Yesterday was “Bist Du bei Mir”. And the day before “Schlummert Ein”. To follow, I was drawn to the Goldberg Variations, since it starts with an Aria. I thought that would be the basis of the Song of the Day. No performance on Youtube was particularly convincing. I thought, “oh what the hell, let’s see how old Glenn Gould stacks up”.  So here is the Aria plus all 30 variations plus the aria again, played by Glenn Gould in 1955. We all know it’s a great masterpiece but today I realized this is really the first song cycle. 

G.G. is 22 yrs. old and he strikes out in a bold and frisky way. Nothing is slow and this performance made him a star. (Duh). But what I am most drawn to, hearing it now with experienced ears, and lots of music in my soul, is  an unexpected vocal quality that he brings to the instrument. We pianists are always trying to find a real vocal legato which is impossible since we strike hammers on strings. I know Glenn always sang along with his playing. I think he thought of music as melodic, and it’s what makes his Bach profound. He actually hears every voice, and sings them all. He doesn’t play a real legato, but the notes connect vocally. Can you hear it? And it’s touching to hear some rubato, which he manages with delicacy and beauty.

But the Aria!  What a wonderful tune. Listen to that and all 30 Variations. You won’t be disappointed and it will lift your day onto a higher plane.

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Michael Barrett is the co-founder and associate artistic director of New York Festival of Song, as well as the co-founder and music director of the Moab Music Festival in Utah. A conductor and a pianist, Michael was a protégé of Leonard Bernstein and serves as music advisor to the Leonard Bernstein Estate.


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