Miracles in Hamburg The Goldberg Variations
They say that out of bad comes good but no one expected the miracle that was about to be revealed by pure chance in Hamburg.
Mariam Batsashvili had had to withdraw from her two performances of the Goldberg Variations for the Keyboard Charitable Trust in Hamburg.
This magnificent young Georgian pianist,a BBC new generation artists ,who just a week ago recorded the Mozart A major Piano Concerto K.488 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and had told me how grateful she was for the chance to play the Goldberg Variations in public for the first time.
She was also very excited about receiving an invitation via the KCT to play in a special wedding celebration on Lorin Maazel’s estate in Castleton in Virginia just a few days before.
Little did anyone suspect that the long trans atlantic return journey would create such physical problems that without a period of complete rest she could not even attempt to play for the 75 minutes or so that the Goldberg demand.
Just three days before the performances the near impossible search was on for a KCT artist who could play them at such short notice.
Luckily our founding fathers remembered a remarkable performance that Stefano Greco had given in 2003 in the Steinway Factory in Hamburg.
It was one of the first concerts ever to be given there and is remembered to this day not only for the fine performance but also that all the various sound boards and piano frames scattered around the walls started to vibrate in sympathy with the performance
It created an aura and atmosphere that those present have never forgotten.
Would he be free and consider to come as an “Emeritus” KCT to fill the breach?
”Give me half an hour” was the reply to a message sent at 7 am .
In fact he had not played them for three years.
The coincidence was that the last time he played them was at the commemoration for Lorin Maazel,who had passed away and left a wish that the Goldberg Variations should be played at his memorial concert on his estate in Castleton Virginia!
I had heard Stefano play in Rome to a sold out hall for S.Cecilia.
A magnificent performance of the Art of Fugue very learnedly introduced by him too.
I had also heard him in a live broadcast on the radio from the President’s Palace il Quirinale in Rome and had commented on how crisp and clean the ornaments were and that it was obviously a Fazioli piano.
Only Sokolov could play them like that on a Steinway.
I was right but Stefano commented that he could also play them as well on a Steinway!(They all do!!!)
Another great coincidence was that suddenly on the social media a picture appeared of Rosalyn Tureck who had played the Goldberg Variations at the Ghione Theatre in Rome after a 20 year break from the concert platform to study in depth the works of Bach in Oxford.
She had become a great friend and ever grateful that from that Goldberg in 1990 started a marvellous Indian Summer in Italy where she proved yet again that she was still the “ High Priestess of Bach”(Harold Schonberg).
She even created a Rosalyn Tureck Oxford Bach Institute of which I was honoured to be a trustee.
My old upstairs neighbour too, Simon Watterton, had just given the day before this sad news a very fine performance at St Mary’s Perivale.
He had not played them since winning the Chapel Gold Medal at the RCM 15 years ago and had decided to add them again to his repertoire.
It seemed as if the Ghost of Goldberg was indeed following me all week!
Stefano agreed to play the two concerts but not having played them for three years he might need to have the score on his I Pad as an aide memoire just in case.
The two concerts were in Steinway Hall in Hamburg and in the house of one of our founder trustees Dr Moritz von Bredow.
A real renaissance man who was singing this week in two performances of the Creation in Berlin as well as organising all the KCT tours and concerts in Germany.
Organising tours of a lecture recital with Florian Heinesch called the “Unplayed Recital”.
It is the programme that one of Arrau’s favourite pupils would have played had he not been assassinated by the Nazis for being overheard speaking badly about the regime.
Moritz has also written learned tomes about the great pianist Grete Sultan who passed away in 2005 aged 99.
He has almost 200 patients as well!
He too had been present 15 years earlier when Stefano had played in Hamburg and was overjoyed when he agreed to make this unexpected return.
We had read his learned programme notes for the CD and knew that Bach was in his DNA.
John Leech suggested that he probably slept with the scores of Bach under his pillow!
I missed the Steinway performance but made it in time to share the Goldberg experience with the 50 guests invited to the HausKonzert in Dr von Bredows house in a street lined with beautiful lime trees .
Rosalyn Tureck was also a very severe task master and would regularly practice 8 hours a day with a metronome as she believed that at the core of Bach was rhythm.
She warmed up with Liszt La Campanella and I told her that no one would believe me if I told them her little secret!
She was also super sensitive to touch and would regularly smile if she saw the piano lid open when she came on the platform and would brush off tiny particles of dust that may have accumulated that could interfere with her caressing of the keys.
“…an attitude of utmost humility,the readiness to submerge one’s own theoretical and aesthetic convictions to make room for the will that is the origin of the masterpieces of Bach themselves” I quote from the sleeve notes of Stefano’s CD and it could have been the very same words of Madam Tureck.
Fascinating to listen to the same passion/obsession from Stefano that I well remember from Madam Tureck.
She had tried as Stefano today to explain to me the mathematical mind of Bach’s genius:
” All the variations that have numbers which are multiples of 3 are canons born of the division of their number by the number 3.Variation 18 will thus be a canon at the sixth(18/3=6),the variation 21 a canon at the seventh (21/3= 7) .
The exception being the 30th final variation that instead of being a canon at the tenth is the Quod libet – That which pleases.
A free variation in which Bach combines two popular tunes “Cabbage and beets have driven me away” and “ I’ve been so long away from you”,arranging them in a solid four part setting over what is the clearest statement of the fundamental bass-line in the entire work.”
The aria ,”so long away” returns immediately after on a magical cloud of G (Andre Tchaikowsky was absolutely memorable here)….It is one of the most moving moments in all music where this little aria changes from being a greeting to a farewell after almost 75 minutes of uninterrupted music.
It was rumoured that it was to be played by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg for the insomniac Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk who had commissioned it.
Fascinating too to read just as Rosalyn had tried to explain the way Bach uses the number 14 – the number obtained by adding the sequence of the letters of his last name (B+A+C+H = 2+ 1 +3+8 = 14).
The number 14 recurs regularly in Bach’s works almost as if he wanted to sign his masterpiece once again in secret:
1) Aria+14+1 variation 2) 1+14 variations+ Aria.
Very stimulating to talk to Stefano too about his use of the pedal which is often a difficult point for the purists on the modern day piano.
It was interesting to know that it is Lupu and Kempff who are absolute models for Stefano in their search for the most complete finger legato.
One in which the piano becomes by some magical alchemy a singing instrument and the unreliance on the pedal leads to a very great sense of weight and inner strength to the actual notes produced.
Over use of the pedal would be totally out of place.Over-loading a music designed to remain light,in the highest sense of the word.
(As Stefano light heartedly points out ,it would be like applying cosmetics to a statue of Michelangelo!)
What he tries to do is to bring out all the tiny details written by Bach – often Bach gave no indication at all of instrumental destination.
As he says “ I have sought to play the piano as if I were endowed with two manuals and at times also a pedal-board,to obtain differing levels of sound,with the voices mutually interweaving themselves.Very often I have used the repeats to bring out first one voice and then another,or to execute the same voice a first time stripped of embellishments,and therefore a purer rendering,and the second time ,enriching it with mordents,trills or passing notes to convey a greater gaiety.”
Bach was a great Latinist and quoting Quintillian “docti rationem componendo intelligunt,etiam indocti voluptas….” ..the learned understand the principles of artistic composition,yet the ignorant receive only pleasure!
And so it was that we were all gathered to listen to this monument in absolute silence on a very fine Bechstein piano that sits proudly in the music room in Dr Von Bredows house.
The I pad was placed on the piano as so many great artists do these days as an aide memoire so as not to interrupt the music for any personal frailties that can disturb a live performances of such masterpieces.
Strangely enough he did use the piano pedals very slightly for the Loure from the 5th French suite that was offered as an encore to a very insistent audience who after 75 minutes wanted even more!
It added a different dimension after the rigour and relentless rhythmic drive that had held us all so spellbound for over 75 minutes.
It was indeed like opening a window to let in the wonderful smells of the limes that surrounded this beautiful room.
Of course Stefano had told me that it was one of the 8(sic) French Suites as there were two early ones that Bach had discarded that Stefano always adds to his complete programmes!
A continual voyage of discovery as was his performance from the very first to the last note 75 or even 80 minutes later – Who was counting!
What a sense of colour he was able to find on his journey from the supreme delicacy of the final repeat of the aria to the enormously imposing trills of the Fughetta Variation n.10 and 14.
The heartrending lament of the 15th variation Andante that brings the first half to a close that seems to disappear into the infinite before the explosion of the opening French Overture that signals the second half.
Very telling the repeat of the 16th played almost sotto voce that took me completely by surprise as did so many other things in this remarkable performance.
There were one or two mishaps that had absolutely no importance when the architectural and rhythmic elements were of prime importance always.
I remember Tureck in Florence stopping for a second in the 23rd variation and immediately allowing her intellect to take over and continuing without any personal agitation as she and we knew that there were bigger things at stake than just note picking.
The wonderful lilt he gave to the 19th was contrasted with the great virtuosity of the 20th.
It led to the most beautiful for me of all the variations: the slow awakening (dare I say it: like the Rite of Spring) like the sun slowly rising of the 22nd variation – the dawn that takes us into unknown territory.
It carries us to the very heart of the work with the final variations as Beethoven was to do in his last Sonata op 111.
The Adagio of n.25 was indeed very moving the repeats finding each time new meaning to what we thought was already so profound.
The trill variation of 28 was played with all the rigour and rhythmic impulse that had been the hallmark of this performance.
The 29th bursting over with pyrotechnic playing always kept in strict control and led so inevitably to the almost joyous Quodlibet that dissolved onto a desolate G ready for the angels to remind us of the aria that had opened this monumental work.
Interesting to note in Rosalyn Tureck’s performance that the second note of the aria was played so deliberately quieter than the first it gave an imposing poise to such an innocent aria.
It was the only personal touch that she permitted herself to add as like Stefano today they are only interested in transmitting with great humility and intelligence the word of “God”.
Tureck too had come to Rome to play for the umpteenth time and to continue with her now annual tour that always included Florence.
She was well into her 80’s and not well and cancelled the performances rather than risk not being at her sharpest.
She heard however that the head of Deutsche Grammophon was going to be present in Florence so not to be beaten she not only played but discarded the little cards that she kept inside the piano.
She performed the Goldberg for a last time and was invited to make her last recording for Deutsche Grammophon .
We kept her locked away in the International Piano Academy in Como and Bill Nabore and I made sure that she was fully recovered to leave this last great document to posterity.
Of course other great performances all have a slightly different approach.
Angela Hewitt (who will performing them for her 60th Birthday celebrations at the Wigmore Hall on the 26th July) similar to Tatyana Nikolaeva in their belief that the song and the dance elements take precedence over any stale intellectual approach.
Both of whom have given magnificent performances in Rome too.
Barenboim ,when his then new CD was issued,announced to the horror of Tureck that he considered them to be orchestral!
The most important element in any performance is humility and integrity the two ingredients that we were reminded of in Hamburg the other evening.
Magic was indeed in the air and the minutes of total silence that greeted the final note when no one dared even breath was a sign that the miracle of Goldberg had woven its trick so unexpectedly in Hamburg.
A beautiful final touch in the programme in thanking Stefano for standing in at such short notice but also a wish for Mariam Batsashvili to make a full recovery and to be able to share with us her Goldberg and Hammerklavier that she is including in her new programmes.
Although playing in Cheltenham Festival finishing with the Liszt Sonata she was still not up to the scaling the great Goldberg mountain at the Rheingau Musik Festival.
Her boyfriend Daniel Villanyi took over at the last minute.
True love indeed and a lovely story.
Rosalyn Tureck with great friend Ileana Ghione in her house that she loved to visit so much in Mount Circeo