JS Bach: Goldberg Variations, played by Sarah Grunstein

October 29, 2016 by Bill Brooks
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A performance of JS Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations for keyboard is a rare treat…writes William Brooks.

Sarah Grundstein

Sarah Grundstein

The well-known legend runs that Bach composed them for Count Keyserlingk, the Russian ambassador to Saxony, to provide comfort during his sleepless nights. They were reputedly played by Keyserlingk’s gifted protégé, and sometime pupil of Bach, Johann Goldberg, who was apparently only 14 at the time of their composition. Whether they could have been played by a 14-year-old, however brilliant, is questionable: certainly hearing them played on a modern piano by an artist of Sarah Grunstein’s maturity and understanding is definitely a deeply satisfying musical and spiritual experience.  An Australian who studied at The Juilliard School in New York and who has made a successful performing and teaching career, Ms Grunstein was making a welcome return visit to Sydney.

The simple theme and its 30 variations, including all the repeats, takes about 90 minutes to perform. In a welcome introduction, Ms Grunstein prepared us by outlining the architecture of the piece, which she performed from memory. She played for us the 32-bar bass line which forms the bedrock of the theme and each of the variations. Every third variation is a canon; Variation 15, in the minor key, with gently descending figures denoting grief and mourning, marks the halfway point, finishing bleakly with a poignantly ascending phrase and a stark open fifth chord. Here Ms Grunstein paused briefly before turning to the second half of the piece, beginning with a brilliant variation in the style of a French overture (Variation 16). Variation 30, the famous Quodlibet, incorporates the tunes of some German folksongs including one about cabbage and turnips, before the Aria (theme) returns to bring us full circle with an immensely satisfying conclusion.

In the 1970s, when harpsichords had begun to proliferate once more and the Baroque revival and historically informed performance movements were flexing their wings, some music lovers would turn their noses up at Bach played on the modern piano. This deprived them of some wonderful musical experiences. The tonal and dynamic qualities of modern instruments allow a performer of Ms Grunstein’s calibre to communicate the simplicity and depth of Bach’s music to us while remaining perfectly true to the Baroque style. Mention should be made of the technical difficulty of playing these variations on a single keyboard, a challenge which Ms Grunstein took in her stride. Many of the variations were specified for two keyboards, which allows the left and right hands to pass freely up and down the keys; playing these on a single keyboard requires great skill to avoid the hands getting in the way of each other.

Despite the dazzling brilliance of some of the variations, and the aforementioned challenge of playing them on a single keyboard, this piece is more about contemplation and deep feeling than pianistic high-jinks. On Tuesday night we heard an exceptional performance by a most accomplished artist.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House, Tuesday 25 October 2016

Presented by the Australian Bach Society

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