András Schiff — The Goldberg Variations

The Interpreter

Sir András Schiff was trained at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest with teachers such as György Kurtág, Pál Kadosa. Ferenc Rados, he later studied with George Malcolm in London. He was propelled onto the international scene by his participation in the Tchaikovsky International Competition (1974) and the Leeds International Piano Competition (1975). A sought-after teacher and lecturer, he is also active as a conductor and is credited with several full-length recordings on the Decca label of works by Beethoven, Mozart and of course Bach. Daniel Barenboim says of Schiff, “It is the level of his mysterious identification with the music of Bach that makes him so unique.”

The Legend

It is an anecdote that is believed to be the origin of the Goldberg Variations. These thirty pieces were commissioned from Bach by Count Herman Karl von Keyserling, an aristocrat, patron of the arts and former Russian ambassador to the Saxon court. Suffering from insomnia and unable to find any real relief except in music, Keyserling asked Bach to compose a series of pieces to be performed in the salon adjacent to his bedroom by his protégé, the harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1725 – 1756). The name of this collection comes from the surname of its interpreter, whereas the original title given by Bach is Aria mit vershieden Veränderungen vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen (“Aria with some variations for two-manual harpsichord”). Whether fact or fiction, the undeniable fact is that this work remains one of Bach’s most famous and important compositions, in which he uses a variety of writing techniques (two-, three- and four-part writing, homophonic and polyphonic style, diversity of rhythms), overlapping hands and crossing of voices that only an experienced performer can tackle.

Experience: a question of authenticity?

One of the great mystical auras surrounding the Golberg Variations is that of its interpretation. Harpsichord or piano? If Bach’s wishes are to be believed, the work should be performed on the harpsichord in order to take advantage of the two sets of keyboards to facilitate the overlapping hand passages in some variations. It could also be argued that since it was composed for this instrument, it should only be played with it in order to respect historical concordance. However, a number of performers, notably Glenn Gould, have contributed to the democratization of the variations on the so-called modern piano. Whether or not one is a purist, for any musician who tackles the Goldberg Variations, their interpretation becomes an experience of personal research and appropriation of the work where, beyond the technicality of the work, a myriad of meanings can be extracted.

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