The so-called Goldberg-Variationen by Johann Sebastian Bach constitute one of the absolute masterpieces of keyboard literature, one of the summits of keyboard technique, and a challenge for all performers tackling it as well as for all listeners venturing through this cycle for the first time.
Throughout the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century, these Variations were considered as entirely unsuited for the concert hall, and potentially unplayable. In fact, their length and size were deemed to be disproportionate for the needs of the average concert-goer, and from the technical viewpoint they presented almost unsurmountable problems. True, piano technique had noticeably evolved from Bach’s times to those of Liszt or Busoni; however, Bach had conceived his work for a harpsichord with two manuals (i.e. two keyboards). While hand-crossings are comparatively common in piano technique, those resulting from the “translation” of Bach’s original to the piano cause very awkward situations: the two hands end up touching the same keys or keys very close to each other, and some passages are nearly impossible to play in a satisfactory fashion.
However, the movement known as Bach-Renaissance, which aimed at reviving Bach’s heritage and at bringing it on the concert stage, considered the Goldberg Variations as a masterpiece which could not be ignored or left silent. In the late nineteenth century, the idea of playing them on the instrument for which they had been designed, i.e. a two-manual harpsichord, was considered absurd; thus, some of the keenest promoters of Bach’s music started to imagine alternative possibilities for presenting them to the audience.
Ferruccio Busoni created an edition/arrangement for the piano which has been recorded in a Da Vinci Classics album, and in which the technically “unsolvable” passages were thoroughly rewritten (in same cases simply by dividing in a more rational fashion Bach’s notes between the pianist’s two hands, in other cases by re-scoring the passages, e.g. moving one or both hands an octave lower and higher). However, Busoni was also concerned by the imposing length of the cycle (even though his own solo recitals could last up to four hours!), and therefore suggested performing only twenty of Bach’s original thirty Variations, for the sake of brevity and concision. He also rewrote the conclusion, revealing the harmonic structure of the Aria da capo and presenting it in the form of a solemn Chorale.
Busoni’s ideas are questionable from the viewpoint of today’s concept of authenticity, but are motivated by his passionate love for Bach’s music; moreover, they offer a singular and personal perspective on the Variations, which may be (and surely is) very partial, but is also consistent and musically convincing.
Busoni’s version dated from as late as 1915: little more than a century ago, the Goldberg Variations were still considered as in need of some kind of “taming” before being performed in public. The version recorded here is one realized by Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger, which had been published already in 1883, and republished in the same year as Busoni’s version in a revised edition realized by Max Reger, who substantially modified many of Rheinberger’s dynamics and articulations.
In the short preface to the published version, Rheinberger stated the reasons for his choice, underpinning that the Variations are among the “most important” keyboard works by Bach. At his time, Rheinberg continues, “this impressive work is prized and played only theoretically” (i.e. it is studied by piano and composition professionals, but is not publicly performed). For him, the reason for this was mainly to be found in the technical issues posed by the transposition from two to one manual. Thus, Rheinberger had realized this “arrangement full of piety” (i.e. of respect) in order to let “musicians and music lovers” know “this treasure of true Hausmusik”. It is important to point out that Rheinberger was not yet envisaging the possibility of playing his version in concert, but rather he was proposing it for the enjoyment of pianists and of a limited audience within the framework of so-called Hausmusizieren, “home music-making”.
If the main reason behind Rheinberger’s operation was a very practical one – avoiding the knotted fingers which might result from performance of Bach’s original – of course it would have been both improper and disappointing to simply divide the Variations scored for two manuals into two parts to be played by two pianists (one playing right hand and one playing left hand), and to leave the remainder unchanged.
In the opening Aria, Rheinberger not only added nothing, but rather lightened Bach’s original by depriving it of many embellishments. The two pianos never play together, but are assigned each a half of the two parts in which the Aria is divided, thus pointing out the symmetrical and binary structure of the piece. What Rheinberger did add, throughout the cycle, is a wealth of performance marks, including articulation, dynamics (i.e. volume) and agogic (i.e. rubato), in conformity with the taste of the era.
Already in Variation I, however, the transcriber’s touch is more clearly observable. Here the part of Piano I is very similar to Bach’s original (again, with markings added), while Piano II demonstrates the dependence of this Variations’ harmonic scheme on that of the Aria (the roles are reversed in the second part). Different from many other famous Variation cycles (such as, to name one of the most celebrated, Mozart’s Ah vous dirai-je maman), Bach did not use the theme’s melody as the element to be varied, but rather its harmony, its bass line. Thus, the kinship between two different Variations or between some Variations and the Aria is not always apparent, unless one delves into the structural element of their harmonic principles.
If this process highlights the harmonic plan of the Variations, the polyphonic dimension is also enhanced by Rheinberger’s choices. As is well known, every third Variation of Bach’s original is a Canon (i.e. a musical genre in which the same melody is presented by two or more parts, starting with a temporal delay); moreover, the Canon’s numbering corresponds to the interval at which the Canon is realized. Thus, Variation III (i.e. the first Canon) is a Canon at the Unison, meaning that the canonic parts play exactly the same notes; however, in Variation VI, the intervals (i.e. the difference of pitch) of the canonic tune are strictly respected, but while the first part begins with a G, the second part begins with an A: G-A is an interval of a second, and in fact this is the second Canon.
Throughout the cycle, Bach composed Canons in two parts, which are in most cases accompanied by a bass line which is independent of the canonic rules; since normally pianists are two-handed, this implies that there are three parts to be divided between two hands. The challenge for the pianist is to bring into relief each individual line without letting the hearer be confused by the frequent intertwining of the parts; this is of course a complex technical issue, but one for which accomplished pianists are properly trained. Doubtlessly, however, if the melodic matter is assigned to two different pianists, the result will be much clearer, not only for technical reasons, but also due to the “stereophonic” impression one receives when listening to sounds coming from two different sources: this dramatically increases the clarity and intelligibility of the polyphonic structure.
The transcriber’s hand is more noticeable in those Variations in which he does not merely fill the harmonic structures, but adds new lines to polyphony, or intervenes on the texture by transforming its sound. Of course, the transition from one harpsichord to two pianos impacts dramatically on the aural result, but this effect is enhanced when the transcriber’s aesthetical perspective is more deeply determined by the taste of his time. This is especially observable towards the ending of the cycle, particularly in Variation 29, where the volume of sound and power displayed by the two pianos and created by the writing adopted by Rheinberger is utterly (and very convincingly) pianistic: the grandiosity of this Variation is clearly at odds with the thinner sound of the original, but the result is impressive and powerful.
Interestingly, Rheinberger’s published version does not include the indication to repeat the Aria after the concluding Quodlibet. The return of the Aria after the cycle’s ending is a very special and touching moment, which no listener of the Goldberg Variations is likely to forget; however, Rheinberger’s omission is significant, because it leads the musicians to conclude their performance on a jubilant and powerful note, instead of the more restrained and transfigured sublimity of the Aria in its simplicity. This resounds with Busoni’s idea of a majestic conclusion, and with his proposal to rewrite the Aria Da Capo so as to make it more imposing and solemn.
In this Da Vinci Classics album, however, the performing artists have decided to reproduce Bach’s original, in order to close the circle traced by the magnificent itinerary of this extraordinary cycle.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Duo Monti-Bianco: The Monti-Bianco Piano Duo (pianists Federica Monti and Fabio Bianco) was founded in 2007 when they both obtained their Master’s Diploma in Music at the Conservatory of Naples, “S. Pietro a Majella”, with top marks. Both musicians came from solo careers and from different chamber music experiences. However, they soon discovered that their musical talents could combine themselves in an extremely natural fashion. Immediately, the Monti-Bianco Piano Duo obtained consensus and positive reviews in concert seasons, festivals, as well as in national and international competitions. From the very beginning, they were mentored by the Professor of Chamber Music at the Neapolitan Conservatory, i.e. Valeria Lambiase. Later, they were admitted to the Accademia Musicale of Florence in the class of Maestro Pier Narciso Masi. Starting in 2007, they won many national and international contests, among which the Concorso “Città di Camerino”, the 13th “Città di Bacoli” contest, the 15th “Giulio Rospigliosi” competition of Lamporecchio, the 10th “Riviera Etrusca” competition in Piomino, the 19th International Piano Competition “Roma 2009” in the section for four-hand piano duet, the 21st International Piano Competition “Roma 2011” in the two-piano section, and the “Bradshaw & Buono International Piano Competition” of New York, in the section for four-hand piano duet. Their performances have always been characterized by their refined interpretation, by the elan, freshness, brilliancy and vigour of their approach to chamber music. These qualities derive not just from their musical experience, but also from their intimate and deep union. After obtaining a two-year Diploma of High Specialization with Maestro Masi, in June 2009 the Duo was admitted to the Hochschule für Musik und Theater of Munich, where they perfected their ensemble playing with prestigious mentors, such as the Tal-Groethuysen Piano Duo, obtaining their Meisterklassendiplom in Kammermusik/Klavierduo two years later.
Within a short time, the Duo widened its repertoire, which ranges from Bach to contemporary music and includes the most important works for four-hand and two-piano duet. From the very beginning, however, this Duo gave particular importance to the rediscovery of unjustly forgotten but important and fascinating works of the four-hand piano repertoire, among which works by Carl Reinecke, Joseph Rheinberger, Hermann Goetz and Max Reger.
Since its beginnings, the Duo was greeted by both audience and critics as an ensemble of musicians possessing a great communicative ability and who are gifted with an elegant and deep mutual understanding. In time, they have been appreciated for their brilliant and deep, passionate and intimate technique, whose sound quality is fascinating. In 2011 they were invited to play at the prestigious Klavier Festival organized yearly in Munich, and in which the greatest pianists worldwide are called to perform. A few months later, they debuted in the Scarlatti Hall of the “S. Pietro a Majella” Conservatory in Naples, performing the seldom-heard Concerto for four-hand piano duet and orchestra op. 153 by Carl Czerny.
In the following years, the two pianists have been constantly invited to play at important European musical festivals, including the Klavier Marathon Rogaska in Slovenia: here, in July 2012, they were invited to play (as the only Italian delegates) in the famous Krystal Hall where, in 1846, Franz Liszt gave a series of concerts. Their presence within the prestigious context of Villa Rufolo at the 62nd Edition of the Ravello Festival (2014) has also been important: they presented a project focusing entirely on Wagner and Strauss. In 2017 they debuted in China with a long concert tour where they performed in important concert halls in the cities of Shanghai, Changsha, Yueyang, Nanjing and Dongguan.
The Duo is constantly invited to participate in musical seasons and festival all over Italy and abroad (e.g. Grafelfing and Monchau, Germany; Lugano, Switzerland; Paris, France). Along with their concert activity, they are actively engaged as Artistic Directors of the important International Piano Competition “Ischia”
Johann Sebastian Bach: (b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750). Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.
The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach Revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach’s works were underway; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.