Shemer also explains that he has chosen “a tuning system that would do full justice to the Goldberg home key, while, at the same time, highlighting the many jarring chromaticisms and dissonances of the g minor variations”. These choices indeed prove highly effective; the basic sound – as captured on this recording, made at Christ Church, Jerusalem – is rich and resonant, yet still allows inner lines to emerge with crystalline clarity. The effect is further enhanced by Shemer’s choice of registration, which reserves the sharper and more strident sonorities available on his chosen instrument to a small number of the more extrovert, virtuosic variations, relying elsewhere on gentler and mellower registers.
These basic choices would not have been sufficient in themselves to guarantee the lyrical yet searching results obtained by Shemer; what matters, ultimately, is the performer’s musicianship as expressed in moment-to-moment decisions, in the subtle inflection of such parameters as phrasing, agogic shaping, accentuation and ornamentation. It is here that Shemer’s unique contribution gradually emerges: his is one of the most supple and flexible renditions of the Goldberg Variations on record. Shemer dares to go much further than most of his colleagues in small yet clearly noticeable modifications, stretching and squeezing the pulse, occasionally straining – though never actually endangering – the sense of metre. This might require some adjustment from listeners who are used to more rigid renditions, but the results are highly persuasive and expressively compelling.1
Shemer is far too sensitive a player to introduce this flexibility in each and every variation; he recognizes that some movements – particularly the virtuosic double-keyboard variations – require a steadier beat, and the level of flexibility thus becomes an interpretive element, enhancing the differentiation between variations and ensuring variety in the work as a whole. Yet even this unstated “rule” is not consistently adhered to; Variation 23, for instance, is handled with far greater delicacy and suppleness than one might expect, given the aesthetics established earlier in the performance. The results are surprisingly convincing, turning this seemingly “solid” variation into a series of arresting rhetorical flourishes.
Shemer’s sense of flexibility reaches its zenith in variation 25, sometimes dubbed the “black pearl” or the Chopinesque variation. Here, Shemer employs something akin to melodic rubato – especially towards the end of the variation – holding the left hand steady while allowing considerable flexibility in the right hand. This practice is seldom employed by present-day musicians (historically-informed or otherwise). Shemer’s employment of it here is startlingly effective, subtly enhancing the music’s expressive intensity. Regrettably, however, this is the only variation which Shemer performs without repeats, inhibiting listeners from contemplating and absorbing the harmonic and expressive complexities of the music and of Shemer’s handling of it (I also suspect that, if Shemer had performed the repeats, his rubato would have been subtly different in each repeat – further enhancing the richness of his interpretation).
I also have some reservations with Shemer’s handling of the double bar-lines. Each of the Goldbeg variations consists of two parts of equal length, each repeated twice. This structure is clearly, even trivially, audible and requires no emphasis; many performers create a sense of continuity, allowing each repeat, and each section, to flow into the next (some even flow from one variations to the next). On some occasions, Shemer is similarly fluent (notable examples include variations 1, 2 and 21). On other occasions (e.g., variations 7, 11 and 15), I feel that he over-emphasizes the work’s sectional divisions – making the end of a first repeat sound like the end of the entire variation, thereby creating a disconcerting stop-and-go effect when he does proceed with the second repeat. This effect is all the more jarring when set against admirable flexibility of pulse and phrasing that leads up to these ungainly pauses.
This is, however, a minor reservation, which only briefly and marginally dampened my enjoyment of this otherwise highly refined, original and compelling account of this oft-recorded work. In his absorbing liner note essays, Shemer emphasizes the work’s intellectual aspects, describing it as “a highly complicated game, both of the intellectual and emotional kind, that of a great artist aware of his own creative powers and enjoying his practically unlimited compositional ability”. He postulates an affinity between Bach’s masterpiece and Herman Hesse’s concept (in The Glass Bead Game) of games as “the epitome of mankind’s spiritual and intellectual achievement”. Shemer’s written essay emphasizes Bach’s intellect rather than his emotion (though he does address the music’s tongue-in-cheek aspects); his actual performance, however, is equally attuned to the music’s expressive depth and sheer beauty. Few performances of The Goldberg Variations have afforded me such profound pleasure, and invited so many repeated hearings.
© Uri Golomb, 2014
1 I have read about performances which apparently take even greater agogic liberties, to the point of being described as “mannered”. I have not heard any of these performances myself, and therefore cannot comment on them or compare them with Shemer’s; suffice to say that, in itself, Shemer’s rendition succeeds in being highly flexible withoutdegenerating into unmusical mannerisms.