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Taking a Double Dose of Difficult Bach

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Some pieces are so monumental that simply performing them gives rise to critical accolades. They represent not only an artistic pinnacle but also a kind of athletic feat, and it seems downright ill-mannered to greet them with anything but respect and awe.

Among these are Bach's "Goldberg" Variations, BWV 988, a set of 30 variations on a single aria, probably conceived as a set of piano exercises but now most often encountered in the form of a concert-length performance. Glenn Gould's landmark recordings (there are two, made 26 years apart) helped establish them in the mind of today's music-lover as a watershed work; and, inevitably, also helped make them into a kind of benchmark against which more and more artists seek to measure themselves. A publicity blurb on the Kennedy Center's Web site says they are "attempted by few and mastered by even fewer," but this is pure hyperbole. This fall in Washington, the "Goldberg" Variations are being performed twice within two months.

Both artists involved have distinctive takes on the work. Angela Hewitt (who will play them at Strathmore on Dec. 3) has made her reputation as a Bach specialist with a twist, recording all of the composer's most important keyboard works (on modern instruments) over 11 years; she has frequently performed the "Goldbergs," though more recently her Bach marathon evenings have focused on the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Christopher Taylor (who will play them at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Oct. 14) is known for marathon evenings, period: His own calling card has been Olivier Messiaen's "Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus," which he has done twice in Washington and which, at more than two hours, dwarfs the mere 70-odd minutes of the "Goldbergs." Taylor's twist involves his piano: It's a one-of-a-kind Steinway from the 1920s with two manuals, meaning two separate keyboards, one above the other, like the harpsichord for which the "Goldbergs" were originally (in 1741) written.

Well and good; for Bach lovers, this is an embarrassment of riches. For me, it represents a critical challenge -- though perhaps also a salutary shaking out of critical complacency. If one player were performing on a harpsichord and the other on a modern piano, one could easily turn a review into a meditation on period styles; but both players use modern instruments (a 1920s Steinway is still "modern" in musical parlance) and bring a contemporary, sometimes Romantic awareness to their performances. Furthermore, the concerts are too far apart to be easily linked in a single "Goldberg" review. And in any case, it is important for the reviewer to avoid the easy trap of acting merely as a Beckmesser-like scorekeeper in comparing two performances: "She played this part fast; he played it slow. She got this passage; he didn't."

With any performance, a critic has to try to clear at least a portion of his mind and ear of preconception and expectation. But the expectation here goes beyond simply what one expects of the artist and extends to what one expects of the work. It isn't only that I feel I personally will have to internalize the "Goldberg" Variations to a new degree to be able to write two separate, equal, interesting articles about the piece. It's that, because any performance of the "Goldbergs" is supposed to be a kind of exalted experience, I feel that the juxtaposition risks commodifying them, reducing the music to mere marathon, a Big Event -- and reducing evaluation of it to a facile "Which was better?"

Marathons, and cycles, have an enduring appeal, be it Wagner's "Ring," Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia," or the Barenboim/Boulez cycle of all of Mahler's symphonies last spring at Carnegie Hall. But I am concerned that an increasing reliance on the Big Event -- and the enduring appeal of such feats as means by which an artist makes his mark -- may overpower our musical diet. As a critic, I am anxious about finding ways to write about them that go beyond merely acknowledging their greatness. Reviewing two "Goldberg" Variations sets, after all, is a mere bagatelle compared with the fall's other critical challenge: covering François-Frédéric Guy's cycle of all 32 Beethoven sonatas, played in near-chronological order over nine days (Nov. 13-22) at the Maison Française, a feat that is, of course, juxtaposed with Till Fellner's ongoing Beethoven cycle at the National Gallery (which continues on Nov. 1).

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