Danish composer Peter Navarro-Alonso’s note-by-note reinvention of the original Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach. Thus Alpha’s innovative performance adds no additional notes in comparison to the original. It is merely through the very creative and extreme orchestration that the new composition gains its own life.
Goldberg Variations | Alpha
by Andrew Mellor
Bach’s instruments often feel beside the point. It is as if he composed ideal music, music that transcends instruments, music that was invented to reinvent itself. It’s often assumed that a piece of music by Bach is so musically indestructible that it can be played with excellent results on kazoo, pennywhistle, banjo, marimba, saxophone – you name it. Such is Bach’s street cred.
Eric Siblin, The Cello Suites, 2009
As our understanding of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music has accelerated in recent decades, so our attitude to the man and his masterpieces has come full circle. It can still seem unfathomable that a single human being managed to wed mathematics and musicianship so fluently in the creation of art both exuberant and profound. Yet we have begun to understand that Bach was an ordinary person who led an ordinary life. He was no stranger to professional rejection. He was often resentful and occasionally held grudges. Bach, it turns out, was so very human.
So is his music. Even more fascinating than its deep emotional and spiritual reservoirs is that ‘indestructible’ property – the result, first and foremost, of human intellectual endeavor. It means a score for solo cello can be respectfully reinvented by an entire orchestra; that a work for harpsichord can be beautifully rendered by a trio of recorder, saxophone and percussion. Bach’s musical science transcends aesthetics. For all the numerology, his music is always more natural than it is mechanical.
The liberation of Bach’s works from spurious instrumental orthodoxies has meant open season for the Goldberg Variations, one of his most fertile creations. This set of 30 variations for keyboard on a single musical idea is one of Bach’s most robust works and at the same time one of his most beautiful. It has resonated with increasing power the more its -creator has receded into the distance of history. Its mathematical qualities make it an enduring puzzle; the music that springs from the number games traverses more states of mind than most -operas.
The process of freeing the Goldbergs from their ideological straightjacket has been hastened by the shattering of their creation myth. Gossip tells us that that Bach wrote the Variations for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to play, in order that his boss Count Keyserlingk – Russian ambassador to the Saxon court – could be entertained while he couldn’t sleep.
It is almost certainly a fiction. More likely, Bach played the Variations for Keyserlingk when he visited the Count in Dresden in November 1741, having performed them for the first time at one of his Collegium Musicum concerts in Leipzig some months before. Goldberg, who was just 14 years old at the time he was Keyserlingk’s private harpsichordist, surely took the score to heart. Later on, his technique fully developed, it’s likely he made his name playing the Variations and in turn, his name stuck to them.
The word ‘Goldberg’ certainly doesn’t appear on the 1741 publication. Instead, it was presented simply as ‘Aria with diverse variations for the harpsichord with two manuals’. If Bach was commissioned to write a work to that brief, he didn’t quite fulfill the terms. The variations are not based on the aria that sounds before and after them, but on the bass line that aria’s melody implies (some say the melody itself is too ornate and gallant to be from Bach’s own hand). The composer was always more keen on chord-sequence or bass line variations than on melodic ones, as his great C minor Passacaglia for organ and D minor Chaconne for violin testify (needless to say, both works have been transferred to other instruments and even ensembles to magnificent effect).
The set falls into two halves: No 15 ends conclusively in G minor, before No 16 launches in the manner of a French Overture, an unequivocal fresh start. The variations progress in miniature three-part cycles of study, character piece then canon. That makes nine canons in all, equally spaced along the way; each one increases the space or ‘interval’ between the canonic parts by one integer, from the second to the ninth. There are two small fugues, No 10 and No 22, each one six variations away from the work’s exact centre point. The aria itself is 32 bars long, divided into two halves of 16 bars each. The entire score is an exercise in perfect symmetry.
The structure tells of Bach’s generosity. He knew his own interest in rigorous counterpoint – the braiding of two or more musical lines that create a greater whole while at the same time maintaining their separateness – was enough to overwhelm the listener. He therefore took care to vary the character of each of the canons and separate them with singing arias, springing dances and exhaling laments. There is an immense, encyclopedic range of moods and styles within the movements: from the simple to the complex, the frivolous to the profound. All are anchored by the aria’s bass line. As in the B minor Mass and The Art of Fugue, Bach sought to create something at once completely unified and utterly diverse.
Realising and communicating the intense focus of the Goldberg Variations with a combination of human minds rather than a single one has proved an irresistible challenge for generations of musicians. There exist arrangements of the Goldbergs for accordion, organ, two pianos, guitar trio, harp, orchestra and all manner of string ensembles.
“The combination of recorder, saxophone and percussion is clearly not very well suited to a baroque-style re-orchestration,” claims Peter Navarro-Alonso, responsible for this version tailor-made for the members of Alpha. “But the richness in that combination lies in its enormous diversity in timbre and dynamic.”
There is a strong tradition, Navarro-Alonso reminds us, of composers taking on Bach’s music while looking beyond the borders of the original text – among them Hans Abrahamsen and -Anton Webern. In his ‘un-authentic’ instrumentation, Navarro-Alonso accentuates certain elements and structures in the original work in a manner that could never be realised on the two manuals of a harpsichord or on the single keyboard of a piano. “Therefore, without adding a -single note, these Goldberg Variations present new perspectives on a well-known score: perspectives that have always been imminent, but which are now brought forth into daylight,” he says.
So, Bach’s emotional encyclopedia isn’t so much changed as presented in very different upholstery. Sometimes its rawness is exposed, at other times its gentility is indulged. We get the impression of Bach meeting us in disguise. The marimba adds a ghostly touch to the already bluesy first rendition of the ‘aria’, blown by a saxophone and recorder passing the theme to one another. Navarro-Alonso emphasizes the idea of Bach’s expanding textural and imaginative scope as the journey proceeds: as each three-variation cycle passes (study – character piece – canon), he adds another instrument to the percussionist’s marimba: vibraphone, glockenspiel, woodblock, guiro, taiko drum, tom tom and so on. As Bach’s mental universe expands, so does the sonic universe with which it is being relayed.
The tuned instruments preserve Bach’s melodic, harmonic and contrapuntal designs. But the new textures, not to mention their combination, frees-up any idea of rhetoric. The gigue of Variation 7 lifts off the dance-floor into airborne fantasy courtesy of sopranino recorder and glockenspiel. The cosmic jangling of Variation 9 spatchcocks Bach’s contrapuntal joinery. The guiro in Variation 13 flings open the doors to an otherwise private, coiled song. The taiko drum in Variation 16 foregrounds the French grandeur with which Bach relied mostly on silence to -muster. The steady tread of Variation 21 sounds even more inexorable when underpinned by a drum. The mania of is successor heightened by the thwacking of drum, marimba and tom toms. The emotional heart of the work, Variation 25, dips underground courtesy of a smoky baritone sax and shadowy percussion. The X-Ray scoring of Variation 28 lets us into all the secrets of Bach’s part writing. Variations 29 and 30 use all manner of sounds to celebrate the ecstatic exuberance that was flowing through Bach’s fingers by this stage in the work.
And then we are back to the beginning: the same room we started out in at a different time of day. But in the final airing of the aria we encounter, unusually in the Goldbergs, an actual, textural change. In a reversal of his steady process of complication, Navarro-Alonso gives us the aria dressed in plainer clothes than those in which we heard it to begin with. Just as we have started to know too much, he reminds us of the bright yet simple wisdom behind it all.
Andrew Mellor, 2018. Andrew Mellor is a journalist and critic with a particular interest in the culture and music of Denmark and the Nordic countries.