Number 9: The Goldberg Variations - The Stoller Hall

Andrew Marsden, 28 Apr 2019, Number 9

Often named as a good introduction not only to the repertoire of its composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, but to classical music generally, the Goldberg Variations remain, long after their publication in 1741, one of the most respected and well-loved pieces of music. The Variations, named after Bach’s student Johann Gotlieb Goldberg – a harpsichordist- who is believed to have been the first performer of the work to aid the sleepless nights caused by the insomnia of his patron Count Keyserlingk, are perhaps most well-known through the two recordings at either end of his career by Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (first in 1955, crackling with youthful energy, and again in 1981, a more reflective, contemplative performance befitting a more mature perspective). The performance by the Manchester Collective presented the Goldberg Variations in an arrangement for a string trio with Rakhi Singh and Ruth Gibson on violin and Bartholomew LaFollette on cello and was acknowledged at the outset of the concert as a performance that “might be the most ‘classical’” of their 18/19 season of performances (which included their startling, disturbing take on Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire).

While the performance may have been ‘traditional’ by the standards of the Manchester Collective, the decision to have the audience sit on-stage with the trio throughout the performance was an interesting one. Bringing the audience closer to the performers helped to highlight the intimacy of the Variations and broke down the fourth wall barrier between the performers and the spectators. Before the trio commenced their recital of the cycle, Singh took a few minutes to highlight some aspects of the composition for the audience to listen out for – the use of canons on every third variation, whereby a violin would start playing and the second violin would then play the same line but a bar later (as vocal performances of ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ traditionally do) and the way Bach introduces minor notes and chromatic scales in later variations. While not essential to the overall performance, it was nice and Singh, Gibson, and LaFollette took some time to make the audience aware of such features and showed a willingness to acknowledge that while many in the audience enjoy listening to music, not all will be fully au fait with the technicalities and details of the composition.

The cycle began with the performance of the initial aria on which the following twenty-nine variations were based, a gentle and contemplative theme. This was soon followed by the first variation on the theme: a quick tempo arrangement which was performed with gusto by the trio; the shift in mood and tone from the initial aria to the frantic playing of this variation was truly exhilarating. The fourth piece featured duelling violins as Gibson and Singh engaged in a call and response with each other, frantically sawing their bows away on the violin strings while LaFollette kept the rhythm steady with his cello playing. Following this intensity, the fifth version saw Gibson sit the performance out while Singh and LaFollette duetted (the seventeenth piece would see an echo of this one, with Gibson and LaFollette performing a duet). The seventh variation once again saw Gibson and Singh testing the capabilities of their violins, drawing their bows across the strings to provoke an almost insect-like buzzing from their instruments!

After the conclusion of the fifteenth of the thirty variations, there was a brief interval before the performance resumed – with Gibson and Singh having swapped sides during the hiatus, almost like football teams swapping sides during the half-time of a football match. The performers certainly showed no signs of flagging as they continued with their renditions of Bach’s compositions as the second half of the Goldberg Variations introduced the minor notes and chromatic scales Singh had pointed out earlier, which introduced a more mournful sound as a contrast to the earlier, major note heavy Variations.

What was perhaps most remarkable about this performance was that there was no way these versions of the Goldberg Variations could be used as a cure for insomnia – while there was room for quiet contemplation in some variations, in others there were rousing flourishes on the strings of the violins, guaranteed to awaken any slumbering audience members! Some of the variations drew out the initial aria and extended the rhythms and notes, others were briefer flashes, burning brightly before fading away to nothing, ahead of their replacement by the next Goldberg Variation. As with much of Bach’s other works, the whole emotional range of human life was present in the music, bursting forth through the professional, intense, and engaging performances of Gibson and Singh, and anchored strongly by LaFollette: joy, sorrow, slumber, wakefulness, contemplation, mania – each one of the Goldberg Variations will have spoken to each audience member in one way or another.

As the performance reached its conclusion, the audience responded with sustained applause – the trio had delivered a mesmerising rendition of a truly wonderful cycle of music. Each performer had been given the space to show off their skill with their instrument and each one of the Goldberg Variations highlighted how much Bach loved music, and how much each performer loved playing the music, which in turn stirred the souls and senses of those in the audience. A truly wonderful experience.