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Goldberg Variations BWV 988
General Discussions - Part 1 (2001)

Let's vote for the best Goldbergs

Kirk McElhearn wrote (March 19, 2001):
Hey, everyone, since it's relatively quiet, how about a new topic for a vote. Let's vote for the best Goldberg Variations recordings.

Here's my idea - we can vote for three different types of recordings: harpsichord, piano and other (including instrumental or other keyboard instruments).

What do you all think?

Thomas Boyce wrote (March 19, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Hentai (hpsd) and Tureck (pf).

Mocfujita wrote (March 19, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Let's add the vote for "the best homepage for the Goldberg Variations".

John Thomas wrote (March 19, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Hantai, harpsichord; Gould (1958), piano; Tiny Tim (1970), ukelele.

Santu De Silva wrote (March 19, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Sounds good to me! I only have the one set: Gould. So I'll vote for the Gouldbergs.

I saw the Angela Hewitt recording in Pittsburgh on Saturday, and I'm kicking myself for not buying it. (I bought An Evening with John Denver; go figure.)

Dennis Janssen wrote (March 19, 2001):
I think the second recording of gould is marvelous. was it in '82?

Charles Francis wrote (March 20, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn] I don't know if Isolde Ahlgrimm has recorded the Goldbergs or not, so it seems rather pointless to waste a vote on harpsichord (granted, the Model-T was a great car, but without a good driver...)

So, I hope you'll allow me to vote as follows:

Piano:
Glenn Gould (1981)
Murray Perahia

Orchestral:
Dmitry Sitkovestsky

John Grant wrote (March 20, 2001):
Well, I'm putting on the potatoes for dinner while inflicting the Rosen Goldbergs on my 7-year-old. My vote: the "Gouldbergs," first or second set. I think I actually prefer the second. More contemplative.

Peter Bright wrote (March 20, 2001):
[To Charles Francis] Out of all the ones I own I would vote:

1. Hantai (hps)
2. Perahia
3. Gould ('81)
4. Tureck ('9? - DG)
5. Hewitt
6. Gould ('55)
7. Schiff
8. Cole (hps)

Harry J. Steinman wrote (March 20, 2001):
[To Peter Bright] This may be considered a bit eccentric or something, but one of my favorite (maybe not THE favorite) would be the Canadian Brass version (BMG/RCA 63610). It is very well thought-out; the voices are clearly separated; it is poetic without being romantic or sentimental. And the work just sounds great on brass! Imagine the sound of the looowww notes on a tuba!

Otherwise, I'm very partial to the 1955 Gould and to the recent Perahia recordings.

Dyfan wrote (March 20, 2001):
[To Harry J. Steinman] That sounds great.

Charles Francis wrote (March 21, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Somebody very kindly sent me the following link: http://www.a30a.com/

Click on "English" and then "Discography".

Anyone got all the recordings ;-)

Michael Grover wrote (March 21, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn] One of my favorite Goldbergs is one that I never hear mentioned, and that's by Christophe Rousset, on harpsichord, on the L'oiseau Lyre label. I also own the recording of him and Christopher Hogwood playing "dueling harpsichords, clavichords, and square pianos" called Bach Duets. Both are fascinating and wonderful recordings.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (March 21, 2001):
[To Charles Francis] No, but I have one he doesn't - the live Scott Ross recording.

I sent him an e-mail to tell him about it.

Amazing site....

Kirk McElhearn wrote (March 21, 2001):
Donald Satz said:
< I have 44 of the versions detailed in the link, and that seems to be much less than half the total - amazing. >
Don, get your act together! Get out and buy more! :-)

Riccardo Nughes wrote (March 21, 2001):
[To Micael Grover] I also have the "Bach duets" cd by Hogwood-Rousset. Unfortunately it's out of print now (very strange for a 1996 issue). Maybe because as stated on the back cover "this recording faithfully reflects the relative dynamic levels of harpsichords, clavichords and square pianos, resulting in differnet volume levels between pieces". First time I hear it when the clavichord pieces arrived I was in an another room and I thought my hi-fi automatically went off : I didn't heard anything!!

However if you listen this cd on headphones you will hear a superb recording.

William Kasimer wrote (March 21, 2001):
< Hey, everyone, since it's relatively quiet, how about a new topic for a vote. Let's vote for the best Goldberg Variations recordings. >
Harpsichord: Newman
Piano: Gould 1981

Pablo Fagoaga wrote (March 22, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn] I will allow myself to modify Kirk's criteria a bit, becuase I think the "repetitions" issue is almost as important as the instrument, in terms of the distinguished character of the music. I choose Gould and Leonhardt as representatives of what we can call the "short" version of the Goldbergs (you know, with no repetitions).

My choice for the "full" version are Barenboim and Tureck.

As you can see, my one and only Harpsichord chioce is Leonhardt.

TccNc wrote (March 23, 2001):
I was surprised to see Kurt Rodarmer missing from the list of "best GB's". I'd be interested to hear some critical reviews of his guitar interpretation of that work. I enjoy it quite a bit.

 

Goldbergs

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 7, 2001):
Donald Satz wrote:
< Given what appears to be quite a difference in views on the quality of Bach keyboard recordings, I'd be interested in knowing Brad's favorite recordings of the Goldbergs and his least appreciated offerings. I find it hard to listen to Schepkin, Labadie is impossible, and Schiff's only superb performance is the 28th variation. What do you think? >
Well, I'm coming to this from having played almost all the Bach keyboard repertoire myself; it's more satisfying to play pieces like this for oneself than merely to listen to recordings, since the tactile experience is part of the wonder of the music. To work it out is like solving a marvelous puzzle. I played the Goldbergs in several concerts in 1985; I'll probably work it up again sometime. It's a very satisfying piece to play non-stop, first note to last, experiencing the cumulative energy as the structure unfolds.

So, listening to others play, I'm probably not looking for the same things as you are. I want to hear performers who have a clear understanding of the whole piece: a sense of all the variations fitting together (not just a collection of pretty moments assembled next to one another). And I want to hear performances that bring out things I may not have noticed in playing the piece myself.

I've heard at least 50 recordings of the Goldbergs, and own somewhere between 30 and 50. I find something to enjoy and learn from in almost all of them, as it's such a rich composition. But if there were a gun to my head and I had to pick only one to keep, it would probably be Pierre Hantaï's.

It's been about ten years since I last heard the mid-1980's Schiff recording, since I don't have a copy of it, but I remember liking it. My favorite on piano is the live Gould performance, Salzburg 1959, followed closely by the 1955. But all piano performances of the Goldbergs sound like transcriptions to me, distortions of quintessential harpsichord music. As long as we're talking transcriptions, others I especially enjoy are Joel Spiegelman on Kurzweil 250 (!) and the Sitkovetsky performance of his own arrangement for string orchestra.

The only type of playing that really displeases me is where the performer sounds technically incompetent, and the recording spliced together from lucky bits where things didn't go wrong. Why should a person who can't actually play the piece with coherent musicality be making a professionally-released recording of it? (Or maybe they can play it, but the evidence is not on the recording....) Then when such a bit of charlatanry gets the highest possible ratings from people, well, it me. For an example of this, see: Amazon.com

Usually I don't care to compare M recordings of variation N next to one another, pulling them all out of context. The only time I would do that would be if I were pedantically trying to get a student (or myself) to think more creatively about variation N, in isolation. Outside such a classroom or lesson situation, why not just enjoy the whole piece, straight through, or at least fifteen minutes or so at a time? That's why assertions such as "Schiff's only superb performance is the 28th variation" make little sense to me: Schiff (or whoever) should be giving at least an illusion of one performance of The Goldberg Variations (as opposed to 32 performances of individual fragments).

Some of those early CD issues of the 1981 Gould performance had it right: one track for the whole disc (just as the LP's of Gould's '81 and '55 had no banding within each side). Inconvenient, yes, but it's one piece of music. No matter how many segments had to be assembled to get it there, a recorded performance should make it sound like one piece of music. It's not The Goldberg Soundbites, it's a deeply structured set of variations.

I wonder if anyone has ever done a formal sociological study about listening to classical music in segments. Before any recordings, one had to go somewhere intentionally and listen to music straight through, or play it oneself. Recordings brought music into other places. With 78's one had to change the record every three or four minutes, or wait while the automatic changer did it. With LP's 15 to 35 minutes of music would run straight through, and probably few listeners habitually got up to pick out individual bands, switching to different records every few minutes. With cassettes it's 25 to 60 minutes at a stretch. Now with CD's and changers it is easy to shuffle all kinds of tiny bits together, and very convenient; or it can run for 40 to 80 minutes straight through, or even longer with a changer. Are people developing different listening habits from that convenience?

A performer in a concert would never stop after one variation, get up, and let somebody else replay that same variation so the audience can compare them. The ability to shuffle performances together or do these A-B-C-D comparisons is (I think) only a 20th-century (and now 21st-century) phenomenon: assembling cassette dubs or playing with a CD player's remote control. What is it doing to music? Or people's attention spans? How does it affect the interpretations of performers who assemble recordings from small bits rather than playing the pieces straight through?

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 7, 2001):
< A performer in a concert would never stop after one variation, get up, and let somebody else replay that same variation so the audience can compare them. The ability to shuffle performances together or do these A-B-C-D comparisons is (I think) only a 20th-century (and now 21st-century) phenomenon: assembling cassette dubs or playing with a CD player's remote control. What is it doing to music? Or people's attention spans? How does it affect the interpretations of performers who assemble recordings from small bits rather than playing the pieces straight through? >
...and should performers now restructure their interpretations of large works to serve the habits of these new "a la carte" listeners, or continue to shoot for coherence of an entire piece? I don't think this is a trivial question. (But I'd be sad if it seriously came to an expectation that classical music comes best as short soundbites.)

Donald Satz wrote (May 7, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman 1st message] Hey, a surprise! Both Brad and I think highly of the Hantai Goldbergs on Opus 111. There's always room for mutual agreement.

I'm not unaware of the coherence of the different parts of works such as the Goldberg Variations. I know that Bach didn't just slap together 30 small pieces of music and attach an aria. To listen to and review performances of the work as one entity isn't just viable; it is the way that most reviewers handle it. Whether most listeners listen straight through is something I don't know. I only know what I'm doing, and sometimes I'm confused about that also.

But I have preferences as well and a short attention span. Reviews taking the 'whole' approach don't mean much to me as I don't listen that way. The fact is that I'd love to read reviews where the smallest segments which could be identified as complete pieces of music on their own are evaluated as to the different recordings. I am convinced that each variation of the Goldbergs or movement of the Partitas or prelude and fugue from the WTC easily holds up on its own. Conversely, the slow introductions to first movements of a Haydn or Mozart symphony do not meet the criteria.

Brad has a good idea about different artists taking the stage during an evening and playing one variation at a time. Audience members could have placards and writing materials to display their level of enjoyment at the end of each artist's peformance of one variation. How exciting!At the conclusion, only one artist gets the million dollar prize money.This could be a great attention getter at concerts which would increase attendance. Just don't ask me where the award money would come from. Perhaps Brad is well resourced. Interested in a joint venture? Brad provides the resources and I come up with the smallest segments for comparison. We could blow "The Weakest Link" off the air.

As for András Schiff, I have listened straight through to his Goldbergs on Penguin; that was induced by the fact that there are only six tracks.I do hate that decision, since it slows down my review efficiency. Regardless, listening straight through still gave the opinion that the only memorable aspect of his recording is the 28th variation. I know when it starts and when it ends even though it doesn't have its own track. I'm not going to be tricked by the reduced tracking strategy. Maybe Brad is responsible for those reduced tracks; sounds like he'd like to be.

For what it's worth, only in music do I take the "micro" approach. In every other area of life, I key on the big picture. I never even had a list of required qualities for a wife, although I might take that route if a second opportunity arises.

Now I will be totally serious. Yes, we live in an age of sound-bites and small attention spans where technology allows us to micro everything to death. Brad may well feel that I am a good example of this unfavorable trend. Perhaps I am, but only in music. All I can say is that Brad hasn't seen anything yet compared to how this is going to play out as the future unfolds. The "big picture" is not a scene that the corporate world, governments, or the perverse advertising community wants us to see. If we did, they would take a nosedive.

Is Brad familiar with a cable network called "E"? Imagine, 24 hours a day of continuous programming elevating the superficial and giving no credence or even mention of anything of substance. My main fear about the future is not that "micro" will take over, but that we will end up with nothing that really matters and the whole population will be unaware that it is keying on nothing. Empty and superficial brains are great foundations for insertion of whatever those in power want to feed into those brains. From macro to micro to nothing - is this our future? Will Brad and I be around long enough to see it?

One more observation. Don't Brad and I have more important things to do that banter back and forth? We must either be taking the day off, or things are slack at work. Personally, I'm at home, but I do now need to empty the dishwasher, feed the pets, and get the place into decent shape before my wife arrives from work. I wonder what she thought of Rameau.

Donald Satz wrote (May 7, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman 2nd message] I like that - the "a la carte" listener, and their numbers arelikely increasing at a fast rate. I believe that if I was a musical composer and wanted great popularity and fame, I wouldn't compose anything that was over six minutes and that might be stretching it some. You need to know your audience.

Pablo Fagoaga wrote (May 8, 2001):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
(snip)
I wonder if anyone has ever done a formal sociological study about listening to classical music in segments. Before any recordings, one had to go somewhere intentionally and listen to music straight through, or play it oneself. Recordings brought music into other places. With 78's one had to change the record every three or four minutes, or wait while the automatic changer did it. With LP's 15 to 35 minutes of music would run straight through, and probably few listeners habitually got up to pick out individual bands, switching to different records every few minutes. With cassettes it's 25 to 60 minutes at a stretch. Now with CD's and changers it is easy to shuffle all kinds of tiny bits together, and very convenient; or it can run for 40 to 80 minutes straight through, or even longer with a changer. Are people developing different listening habits from that convenience?
(snip)
I'm surprised that you still didn't notice that in the recent years mankind as a whole is tending to act and think as if we had the life expectancy of a mosquito.

Cellular phones, e-mails, TV, cars, computers...EVERYTHING brings, behind the specific purpose of the gadget, a common promise (sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle) of FAST, FASTER, FASTEST.

We can ask: What's the rush??

I don't know, but seems to be that it is just happening. I deeply respect your opinion on "tiny-bits-listening", but sometimes the "big picture" seems to be not so well transmitted in original versions. Let's face it. Put aside cultural issues. Take, for instance, the Goldbergs. You mentioned the '55 Gould reading as one of the top-of-the-line versions. It surprises me that choice!!! I don't own 50 recordings of the Goldbergs, but from the dozen I have, Gould most surely is the fastest. And if that wasn't enough, he skips the repetitions, which, by the way, is the choice of the majority (again, among my humble bunch). Plausible explanation for this "tiny-bits-playing" seems to be a better result in terms of global exposition of the Goldbergs as a unity. Call me a moron, but it is obvious that if you keep goofing around too much with a partial idea, chances are extermely high that you will loose the listener attention, and you will fail to transmit the sense of unity, because of your equally emphasis on the fragmentary. So, may be (God forgive me), the Goldbergs are not perfect, or the possible approach is not so tight, and micro and macro can coexist. just play the record twice.

Tjako van Schie wrote (May 8, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] Hi, just thought this might interest you all: i made my last 500 from my goldbergs cd available on amazon.

1991 recording, grand steinway, netherlands, cd available from amazon:
http://s1.amazon.co.uk/exec/varzea/ts/exchange-glance/Y03Y1203885Y9426085

Mocfujita wrote (May 8, 2001):
Pablo Fagoaga wrote:
"You mentioned the '55 Gould reading as one of the top-of-the-line versions. It surprises me that choice!!! I don't own 50 recordings of the Goldbergs, but from the dozen I have, Gould most surely is the fastest. "
There are many ways to listen to the music. In case of the Goldberg Variations, I would like to offer you a manageable material. You can play it as you like. Piano, chembalo, strings. With or without repeats. Any kind of tempo. Whole or segments. The you can make your own Goldberg. Visit my site!
http://www.people.or.jp/~imyfujita/indexe.html
Or you can find it through Yahoo!. with "Goldberg Variations" or "music of intellect".

Kirk McElhean wrote (May 8, 2001):
Donald Satz said:
< For what it's worth, only in music do I take the "micro" approach. >
I must say that, while I appreciate your reviews immensely, I feel that sometimes you go a bit too "micro". As Brad said, listen to the Goldbergs as a complete work; or listen to a partita as one work, not a string of movements...

It can make a difference. While it is interesting to examine each individual movement, I feel more comfortable with a larger view.

Take the WTC - I have about 10 versions, and I appreciate most of them according to their qualities and defaults. But, when I listen to one, I listen to the entire recording, and don't try to "block out" the bits I feel are inferior. Imperfection is part of any artistic endeavor...

Donald Satz wrote (May 9, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Help Mom, they're ganging up on me! I'll be a 'bottom line' guy for the moment. My bottom line is that I do reviews for my personal enjoyment and enlightenment. The way I do them maximizes my enjoyment and enlightenment. What others think of them is not insignificant at all, but it is a secondary consideration.

Kirk indicates that he listens to the entire work including those portions where he already knows that he considers the performance inferior. I don't feel I can afford the luxury of spending time on what I think is an inferior performance. Career, family, music, and other responsiblities and pleasures of life take up much time. Listening to inferior performances is not a good use of my time, just a waste of my time. There is one exception to that rule. Time marches on and taste can change some. So, although in recent months I have listened only to Schiff's 28th Variation of the Goldbergs, I know that at some point I'll give the entire Schiff performance another try. I've already done that a couple of times over the years, but my conclusions haven't changed yet.

Overall, I maintain that there's a repetitive quality to most reviews I read: short, larger view, academic. Also, I usually don't agree with their conclusions. I think there's plenty of room in the review world for a different take and approach: long, shorter view, conversational. I'm just a regular guy trying to hold my own with all of you highly knowledgeable folks; modesty is my trademark.

I'd like to provide a small number of examples of the failings of the short review with the larger perspective. These come from the new May/June issue of Fanfare Bach reviews:

1. Bach Cantatas/Sinfonias & Arias from Ian Bostridge, Fabio Biondi directing. The only comments in the review concerning Biondi and his orchestra go like this - "Biondi and his band provide superb support". There was also a sentence about how Biondi observes the fermatas in Bach's chorales. Well, that may be the larger view, but it tells me next to nothing. Also, let's not forget that this disc has Sinfonias where Bostridge is obviously not involved; Biondi & company are not providing "support", they are the whole show. I reviewed this disc quite a few weeks ago and provided detailed comments concerning Biondi's support in the vocal portions and his performances of the Sinfonias. I commented on tempo, projection, rhythmic vitality, and quite a few other features that an orchestra and its director bring to the table.

2. Angela Hewitt Bach recital on Hyperion. The reviewer makes no mention of the earlier Hewitt Bach recital disc from DG which contains two of the works on the new one. That's no wonder since the reviewer admits that he has never heard any of the earlier Hewitt/Bach recordings from Hyperion. Well informed? Hardly. This reviewer loved the new Hewitt disc, but what's the foundation for this affection in relationship to other alternative versions? If the man has not heard any earlier Hewitt discs, what the hell has he heard that makes him qualified to rate Hewitt highly? This is a competitive world. Hewitt can't be high unless one or more other performers are low. I can listen to a host of Bach recordings in isolation, enjoy each one, and let others know about it. But it won't do others any good to hear that "everything" is rewarding. Most folks have some kind of limitations on tbuying volume, and I think they want comparisons. In my review, I make comparisons to the earlier Hewitt issue on DG and a host of other alternative recordings.

3. Trio Sonatas & Portions of A Musical Offering from Florilegium on Channel Classics. Evidently, the reviewer was so concerned about providing the long view that she totally neglects to mention a very important detail - the largest lettering on the disc cover states "A Musical Offering" although the disc only has the Trio Sonata and Ricercar a 6. This is a deceptive presentation done to enhance sales, and I would assume that many buyers ended up feeling at least a little cheated and duped. However, I must admit it's a wonderful disc. The Fanfare reviewer, though, had problems with the peformances and the recorded balances. I figure she must have had an ear infection at the time.

Since I'm on a roll here, I'll give some more examples:

1. March/April Fanfare - Review of Art of Fugue from Hans Fagius on BIS. Highly complimentary. No mention of any other organ versions. "Yes, the playing is frequently grandiose and the sound overwhelming...". Has this reviewer ever heard the Alain version on Erato or the Koito version on Temperaments? He seems to have little idea of what's grandiose or overwhelming. Fagius is a pussycat compared to most other organ versions as I consistently mentioned in my review.

2. January/Feburary Fanfare - Review of Bach's Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord from Jaap Schroder/Helga Ingólfsdóttir on AC Classics. This time, the reviewer only refers to comparative versions on modern violin. There's no mention that other Baroque violin sets even exist. Also, no mention whether there are any other works performed on this 2-cd set. Since the six sonatas leave much room for additional music, this consideration would be important to many readers.

If any of you prefer the above reviews to the ones I wrote, I wish you the best in life. I find those reviews incomplete, undernourished as to applicable comparative versions, and sometimes simply ignorant. It's this type of stuff that told me that I could do reviews and do them better - that's just what I'm doing. If you want exactly the type of review you most appreciate, you need to do your own.

Pablo Fagoaga wrote (May 9, 2001):
[To Mocfujita] Thanks for the tip !!!

I agree with you. There are many, many ways to approach any given musical piece. And each view has it's values.

John Thomas wrote (May 9, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] Lighten up, Don! We love your extensive reviews. Your (mild) critics are just talking about what THEY would do if they were reviewing here. But they're not, and you are, and you do indeed produce a kind of review that no one else does. We can always read Fanfare, too, but I hope you'll keep on doing what you do best. If it's fun, why not?

Kirk McElhean wrote (May 9, 2001):
Donald Satz said:
< Kirk indicates that he listens to the entire work including those portions where he already knows that he considers the performance inferior. I don't feel I can afford the luxury of spending time on what I think is an inferior performance. >
Well, yes... and no. I mean, I understand where you are coming from. However, no performer ever performs a given movement in isolation (with the exception of Gould, perhaps). Each movement fits into a larger scheme that governs the entire work. But, to each their own.

< If any of you prefer the above reviews to the ones I wrote, I wish you the best in life. I find those reviews incomplete, undernourished as to applicable comparative versions, and sometimes simply ignorant. It's this type of stuff that told me that I could do reviews and do them better - that's just what I'm doing. If you want exactly the type of review you most appreciate, you need to do your own. >
I indeed appreciate your reviews, Don, even if they are not the way I would do them.

On writing reviews - I have just started doing reviews for www.musicweb.uk.net. I will be writing about early music and baroque recordings. I have no illusions that I am a reviewer of any great comptence, but, then again, I am not paid for this.

There are many difficulties in writing a review - first of all, defining your public. I wrote a few reviews of some Portuguese music I had never heard, most of which has probably not been recorded elsewhere. There is no possibility of comparing it to previous recordings. The best I could do is compare the music to other composers, and, in the case where I felt it was interesting, try and convince people of that.

However, I am looking forward to writing reviews of Bach recordings. Because there, as Don mentioned in his examples, it is interesting to compare to previous recordings by the same performer, or other available recordings. But, I can do this because I have some 350 Bach CDs. A reviewer who is not "specialized" cannot do this. In the examples cited, it is likely that this is the case.

I wrote a review of a recording of some Bach/Busoni transcriptions. It is obvious that I had to cater to two audiences - those interested in Busoni, and those interested in Bach. For most members of this list, the recording has little interest. But for those interested in romantic piano music, this is totally different.

You can never know if your audience knows enough about the music. In the examples Don cited, the reviews are, perhaps, not sufficient for him (or for me), but for many of the readers they are.

Keep sending yours, Don, even though I don't agree with your approach on an absolute level, I have learned a great deal from them. Even though I don't agree with all of your conclusions, I find your comparisons very valuable.

But do try to listen to some entire CDs now and then... :-)

Jim Morrison wrote (May 9, 2001):
Kirk McElhearn wrote:
< Keep sending yours, Don, even though I don't agree with your approach on an absolute level, I have learned a great deal from them. Even though I don't agree with all of your conclusions, I find your comparisons very valuable. >
Yes they are valuable. Don is a good force on this list. His dedication to music is impressive and I bet I've learned something from every review he's written, and sometimes that knowledge gets expressed by thinking about why I disagree and then sending those thoughts to the list, hopefully with some indications as to what I in fact like about a peice that he doesn't.

For instance, I didn't realize just how good that Jaccottet c minor book one prelude was, how subtle the first section and then how explosive it was in the middle when the prelude begins to break apart and how off-balance CJ keeps the music tumbling along until the finish, quite unlike the more forward driven type of performences, until Don wrote in and said how bad he thought it was. "I don't remember being shocked liked that," I thought, and turned to a recording on my shelf that I haven't played in a while. I also know I wouldn't be writing and thinking about music as much as I do know without people like Don, Kirk, and Brad to inspire me.

More on CJ's WTC later, which I'd rate as a must-buy.

Don's reviews are great for, among other things, reminding you of all the good music you have around and may not have listened to in a while, for teaching you to think about why you do or do not like a piece, how the musical experience can be enriched by thinking critically about it, and by paying very close attention to what we're hearing.

I hope people don't mind this turning into a bit of a Don love-feast (no climaxes though) I am, like a few others, worried that Don's thinking about not writing as many reviews as he now does.

So please keep them coming, Don and everybody else.

Donald Satz wrote (May 9, 2001):
[To John Thomas] Yes, I should lighten up. My basic problem lately is lack of sleep, having had only about 4 hours the previous three nights. I'm taking meds. for allergy, and those damned pills have me racing around. But I did get over three hours last night. I don't feel reborn but my mood level is on a more normalpath.

Tjako van Schie wrote (May 10, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] Then you really need to hear the Goldbergs :) written for a Count with insomnia :)

Pablo Fagoaga wrote (May 10, 2001):
Do you know why I like this list??

Because there are more or less 130 souls, with 130 potential reviews, with 130 potential styles, with 130 possible scopes, with 130 possible knowledge contributions. Kirk, Brad, Tom, Don, and everyone else makes up "MY" idea of a review, which has all the best from every world. It is Fanfare, Gramophone, Amadeus, at the same time. It has micro, macro and wacko analysis.

Why would I want to read 130 mail of 130 guys telling the same, the same way, with the same perspective??? I just like each and every one of you to be yourselfs. That's the most valuable profit of this list. So, keep on writing the way each of you think is the most interesting, or right, or whatever.

I will keep distilling the ideal review from your personal contributions.

Donald Satz wrote (May 10, 2001):
[To Jim Morrison] The reviews will keep coming unabated; I'm sorry if the tone of any postings I made gave a different impression. I may bitch a lot, but I keep going just like a Timex watch.

 

More on Goldberg variations

Michael Stitt wrote (June 6, 2001):
I found this e-paper on the Goldberg variations by Dr Yo Tomita, of interest, especially the debate over the authenticity of the Aria. I include an excerpt of his paper here. The full paper, including the work's history, can be read in full at: http://www.music.qub.ac.uk/~tomita/essay/cu4.html#CS

Dr Tomita writes:

"...some claim that Bach merely borrowed his sixteen-years old ideas, while others argue that Bach was not the author of this Aria. The scholars working from style analysis also argue to such an extreme extent as to regard the modulation scheme and ornamentation as un-Bachian. Recently this contentious issue became the centre of open dispute, as two scholars, Frederick Neumann, who proclaims un-Bachian theory (1985), and Robert Marshall, who supports Bach's authorship (1976/89), bitterly impugned each other. The likely winner to be declared is Marshall, for his evidence of Anna's handwriting, which is identified as dating from the 1740s, is much stronger and more credible than those of his contender. Indeed it can be proven to some extent that she copied the Aria from one of Bach's autograph manuscripts, possibly the one he had used for writing the Stichvorlage (the exemplar for the engraving).

This new understanding from source studies seems to have overpowered the previously assessed evidence presented by the style analysis. In his book of 1993, David Schulenberg points out that "the Aria is neither Italian nor French but specifically German galant in style, and certain details point directly to Bach, especially the beautiful broadening out of the rhythm into steadily flowing notes in the last phrase."

END

Gregory Barton wrote (June 12, 2001):
[To Michael Stitt] What matter who wrote it! It doesn't change nuffink!

 

Goldberg Themes

Donald Satz wrote (July 31, 2001):
Brad asked about my conception of themes for the Goldberg Variations. I think of it two ways. With the 'big picture' there's only one theme with 30 variations applied to it. Considering each variation its own entity, I feel there are basically two themes for each one. Shorter segments, depending upon their length, could be referred to as phrases, motifs, passages, etc. Brad considers some of the variations to have quite a few themes; that's also reasonable. It all makes sense when listening to the work. It's music - good times - great pleasure - enhanced quality of life. I hope there isn't a final exam tomorrow.

Bradley Lehman wrote (August 1, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] Agreed...there are different ways to make sense of the work. I was merely objecting to the [wrong] use of the word "theme" to mean the repeatable half of each variation, or anything else imprecise. "Theme" already means something else in music, so the halves of variations should be called something other than "themes" unless the aim is to confuse unsuspecting readers who expect normal usage of musical terms.

The way I see the big picture of the Goldberg Variations, there's an Aria that presents a harmonic progression along with its melodic themes. The progression is the only consistent basis for all the variations. (In this way the GV are old-fashioned: in the 16th and 17th centuries variation sets were often based on harmonic patterns rather than melody. By the 18th century it was more common to use melody instead of harmony as the basis for variations. Examples of older harmonic formulas for variation are the Romanesca, the Monica, the Passamezzo Antico, the Passamezzo Moderno, etc.)

The various themes in the Aria itself, and the various themes in individual variations, are repeated, developed, and elaborated within each variation over the consistent harmonic progression. Bach mixes and matches the themes within each variation in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways, not simply repeating or transposing them as melodic formulas. The themes are not reused from one variation to another; every variation is thematically self-contained.

The first half of each variation, generally called the "A section" by theorists, modulates from the tonic (G major) to the dominant harmony (D major). The second half, the "B section," modulates back to the tonic and includes a prominent internal cadence on the submediant (E minor). The several variations in G minor, the parallel minor key, have a similar but not identical progression since they're in minor; the relationships of major and minor are reversed.

The only variation in which the two sections have unequal length and character is var 16, emulating the style of a French ouverture; in the others, the binary structure is symmetrical.

And the variations are of course grouped in threes, with every third variation being a canon at a larger interval than the preceding canon. That ternary grouping is a nice way to break up the monotony of almost everything being in 2's, 4's, 8's, 16's, and 32's. If everything were symmetrical in pairs, the piece would degenerate into dull formula. Bach enlivens the structure with asymmetry as he develops his themes...it's the asymmetry that keeps the listener guessing.

So, as you see, I also object to the assertion today that "there's only one theme with 30 variations applied to it." My objection is to that hand-waving and (once again) imprecise use of the word "theme." Normally, the phrase "theme with variations" means that there is a melody on which all the variations are based. (And such a phrase misrepresents the Goldbergs since they're based on harmony rather than melody; Bach doesn't use the melody of the Aria as a theme for later development elsewhere.) The Merriam-Webster dictionary says that a theme is "a melodic subject of a musical composition or movement"...not "half of a binary structure" or "a harmonic pattern."

I'm not trying to be academic here. I'm just trying to stick up for letting the word "theme" mean what it usually means in writings about music, so it will be easier to understand what's being written about. A theme is a melodic subject with a recognizable rhythmic profile. A theme may be made up of motifs and phrases, yes. But a theme is not the same as a motif or a phrase.

Do people go around using the word "hamburger" when they mean "calendar"? A listener or reader gets confused when a word comes along and means something abnormal. Often the context makes a malapropism obvious, but sometimes it's not so obvious.

Donald Satz wrote (August 1, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] Brad can saunter down the halls of college all he wants, but I don't buy off on his assertion that a theme is precise. The very definition that he takes from his dictionary leads to imprecision in interpretation. And Brad himself stated in a recent posting that he recognizes a few themes within some individual variations. Overall, I think it's very much open to question as to how many themes are in the Goldberg Va. Rigidity is often not advantageous.

I think that much of this issue stems from Brad's and my respective backgrounds. I'm just a member of the populace; Brad is a trained music professional. I have no musical principles or processes that I have lived with and would naturally want to protect, and I simply can't accept the premise of the precision of a particular word when common sense tells me that it is not generally used in a precise manner.

What do other list members think? How many themes are there in the Goldberg Variations?

Charles Francis wrote (August 1, 2001):
Donald Satz wrote:
< What do other list members think? How many themes are there in the Goldberg Variations? >
Well, for example, the subject of a fugue is one theme, the counter-subject is another, while, for example, a four part choral has four themes - the choral itself and three others. For the GVs each individual variation therefore contains many themes, so allowing for the canons which reduce the number a bit, I guess there are hundreds of themes in total. The variations, are not variations on a theme, however, but rather each variation has common harmonic underpinnings which gives the work its sense of unity and repetition (in simple terms, the chord sequence repeats).

Not sure whose side I'm on, but that's how I hear the world.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (August 1, 2001):
Donald Satz wrote:
< What do other list members think? How many themes are there in the Goldberg Variations? >
I tend to agree with Brad. A theme is a musical "riff", that is played and developed, such as the theme of a fugue. What you are calling theme is a section.

In the GVs there are tons of themes; each variation has several, but in a work like this is can be hard to pin them down. In fugues, the themes are easy to hear, but in some of the variations they are much longer and more complex.

Donald Satz wrote (August 1, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn] I don't take any issue with the premise that the GVs has "tons of themes". However, some dictionaries define 'theme' as a principle subject of a musical composition or movement. That would tend to indicate a smaller number.

Donald Satz wrote (August 1, 2001):
Starting with my initial perceptions of themes in the Goldberg Variations and after ingesting a few dictionary definitions and the comments of list members, I think it's not unreasonable to advance the premise that the work has one primary theme with a series of subsidiary themes. That leaves open the question of the number of subsidiary themes in the GV's, but that's a question that doesn't appear to have an exacting answer.

Bradley Lehman wrote (August 1, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] Perhaps an illustration is in order. I know next to nothing about the parts inside a car's hood, except how to check the oil and washer fluid. If I go in to a mechanic and say my alternator is broken, when the problem is really the distributor cap or the carburetor or a broken belt (I know they exist and sort of what they do, but not where they are), it just wastes his time. I can call it an alternator or a generator or whatever I want to call it in my own mind, but it's not going to communicate the right meaning to the person who really needs to know the detail. It's better if I can accurately describe the symptoms of the problem in plain words, and leave the technical terms and diagnosis to the person who has to do something about it.

The mechanic does have a professional stake in the word "alternator": he expects that when the word is used it really refers to an alternator and not an engine block. If somebody comes in telling him that an alternator is something else, he has the right to be surprised and amused. "There's a sucker who doesn't know how his car runs!"

As I asked a few days ago, why not just dispense with the relatively subjective word "theme" and tell us the bar numbers in the music where the interesting events occur in the performances? The bar numbers and the notes are more precise than anyone's interpretation of "theme" anyway. Those of us who are trying to figure out what you're talking about in your reviews can look up exactly the spots you're talking about. Which hand, which notes, which trill in which bar? A score is like a road map: it doesn't contain or capture the music entirely, but it gives the best available visual representation of it. Things in a score or a map can be referred to precisely.

And surely you do have a copy of the score of the Goldberg Variations, if you have shelled out the money for more than forty recordings of the piece and are comparing them at a level of close detail. Yes? (How else would you keep track of the comparisons with any accuracy at all?) The score shows the notes that Bach wrote and published, and the best editions also incorporate the hand-corrections that he put into his own copy after it was published. It seems that these invaluable corrections might have some bearing on your series of reviews, since some of the recordings were done before those corrections were discovered. Among other things, the corrections clarify the intended tempo of var 7....

As for "sauntering down the halls of college," I don't know how young you think I am. The college class in which I most used the word "theme" in musical analysis was 18 years ago, more than half my life ago. And I learned about themes in piano lessons at least seven years before that. In those past 25 years the word "theme" has never meant carburetor or sandwich or half a Goldberg Variation.

Yes, the parsing of a passage of music into themes is somewhat subjective. Granted. But at the same time it's more precise than you think it is. If the two halves of a variation begin with the same melody (as happens in var 7), they are not separate themes as you evidently think they are!

I agree with you that rigidity is not advantageous.

Donald Satz wrote (August 1, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] Most of the individuals that my reviews are primarily intended for do not own any scores, although the CD-ROM route that some CD issues include will eventually resolve the situation.

As I wrote separately to Brad, I distribute my reviews with the hope and knowledge that some readers do benefit from them in their buying decisions. They have no other purpose except for the pleasure I derive from preparing them.

Charles Francis wrote (August 1, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] The Goldbergs are based on a 32-measure theme exposed in the bass line of the opening aria. As it happens, the first 8-measures are identical with the theme of Handel's Chaconne avec 62 variations, HWV 442, in G-major, which is dated 1703-6. It was published around 1732 by Witwogel in Amsterdam, a publisher who is known to have used Bach as a distributor as there is a surviving announcement from 1735-36 regarding harpsichord works by Hurlebusch available "from Capellmeister Bach at the St Thomas School Leipzig". HWV 442 was also published in London in 1733 as part of Handel's "Suites pour le clavecin". Personally, I find another Chaconne in G-major by Handel, HWV 435, to be even closer in spirit to Bach's Goldbergs. The performances I have are:

HWV 442: Isolde Ahlgrimm, Harpsichord, Suites for Harpsichord Nos. 7-11, Eterna.
HWV 435: Murray Perahia, Piano, Plays Handel and Scarlatti, Sony.

Something to thinks about!

 

Continue on Part 2

Goldberg Variations BWV 988: Details
Recordings:
1900-1949 | 1950-1959 | 1960-1969 | 1970-1979 | 1980-1989 | 1990-1999 | 2000-2009 | 2010-2019
Comparative Review: Goldberg Variations on Piano:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Comparative Review: Round-Up of Goldberg Variations Recordings:
Recordings | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
GV - R. Barami, J. Crossland, O. Dantone, D. Propper | GV - M. Cole | GV - J. Crossland | GV - E. Dershavina | GV - S. Dinnerstein | GV - R. Egarr [Lehman] | GV - R. Egarr [Satz] | GV - R. Egarr [Bright] | GV - Feltsman | GV- P. Hantai | GV - P. Hantaï (2nd) | GV - K. Haugsand | GV - A. Hewitt | GV - R. Holloway | GV- H. Ingolfsdottir | GV - J. Jando | GV - B. Lagacé | GV - G. Leonhardt | GV- K. Lifschitz | GV - A. Newman | GV - T. Nikolayeva 3rd | GV- J. Payne | GV - W. Riemer | GV - C. Rousset | GV - S. Schepkin, M. Yudina & P. Serkin | GV - A. Schiff [ECM] | GV- H. Small | GV - M. Suzuki | GV - G. Toth | GV - K.v. Trich | GV - R. Tureck [Satz] | GV - R. Tureck [Lehman] | GV- B. Verlet | GV - A. Vieru | GV - J. Vinikour | GV - A. Weissenberg | GV - Z. Xiao-Mei
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Quodlibet in GV | GV for Strings
Discussions of Individual Recordings:
GV - D..Barenboim | GV - P.J. Belder | GV - E. Dershavina | GV - S. Dinnerstein | GV - R. Egarr | GV - V. Feltsman | GV - C. Frisch | GV - G. Gould | GV - P. Hantaï | GV - R. Holloway | GV - J. Jando | GV - K. Jarrett | GV - G. Leonhardt | GV - V. Makin | GV - A. Newman | GV - S. Ross | GV - A. Schiff | GV - R. Schirmer | GV - H. Small | GV - G. Sultan | GV - G. Toth | GV - R. Tureck | GV - S. Vartolo | GV - B. Verlet
Article:
The Quodlibet as Represented in Bach’s Final Goldberg Variation BWV 988/30 [T. Braatz]

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Last update: ýJanuary 20, 2009 ý14:12:28