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French pianist Alexandre Tharaud took a sabbatical year to perfect his interpretation of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a set of 30 variations on an original theme that is one of the pinnacles of the keyboard literature. His 2015 recording of this demanding and complex work received widespread acclaim and praise for his unique approach to the masterpiece.
“He conceives the whole piece as a drama that sucks us in and doesn’t let us go, and carefully paints vivid character along the way.” — The Guardian
Alexandre Tharaud has distinguished himself as one of France’s leading pianists. Recognized on the international stage as an artist of unique vision and originality, Alexandre is heralded for his brilliantly-conceived programs and bestselling recordings that range from Bach, Chopin, Rameau, and Ravel to music inspired by Paris cabaret of the 1920’s.
This season’s highlights in North America include performances with the Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst, and his return to the Montreal Symphony. His recent recitals in the US include his return to Carnegie Hall, and recitals in Washington, DC, Boston, Montreal, and Chicago Symphony Hall. He also continues to appear frequently with Les Violons du Roy–with whom he has recorded Bach and Mozart for Warner Classics-on tour, and in Canada, and in recent seasons made his debuts with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony and returned to the Toronto Symphony. Other recent highlights in North America include appearances at Boston Symphony Hall and at Walt Disney Hall. Alexandre has enjoyed working with such conductors as Peter Oundjian, Bernard Labadie, Daniele Gatti, Lionel Bringuier, Stéphane Denève, Vladimir Jurowski, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, among others.
In Europe, Alexandre performs extensively in Germany (Essen and Cologne Philharmonies; Alte Oper Frankfurt; Ludwigsburg Festival), France (Théâtre des Champs-Elysées; Opéra de Versailles), as well as at the Warsaw Philharmonie; Victoria Hall, Geneva; Muziekgebouw and Concertgebouw, Amsterdam; BOZAR ,Brussels; Wigmore Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall, London; Auditorio Nacional, Madrid; Santa Cecilia, Roma; Tonhalle, Zürich; Casino, Bern; Rudolfinum, Prague and Musikverein, Vienna. His festival appearances include the BBC Proms, Edinburgh International Festival, Gergiev Festival in Rotterdam, Aix-en-Provence, La Roque d’Anthéron, Schleswig-Holstein, Rheingau, Ruhr Piano Festival, Nuits de Décembre de Moscou, Rimini, Domaine Forget and Lanaudière.
A Beethoven CD featuring the three last sonatas was released on the ERATO/Warner Classics label in Fall 2018. This follows a tribute to one of the greatest French singers of all times, Barbara, presented at the Philharmonie de Paris in October 2017, and a Brahms CD together with cellist JeanGuihen Queyras, a regular chamber music partner for 20 years.
“The French pianist’s restless energy and esprit are infectious…” — The Guardian
Among the performing highlights of the next two seasons: a European tour with the Metropolitan Orchestra and its chief-conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Ravel’s Left Hand piano concerto); a tour of Japan including a concert with the Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra (Shostakovich piano concerto no. 2). Further tours will take place across France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland together with NDR Radio Philharmonie, Orchestre de la Suisse-Romande, Münchener Kammerorchester, Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie, and Orchestra Verdi.
Contemporary music has always featured prominently in Alexandre’s activities and January 2016 saw him present the world premiere of Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s new Piano Concerto for the left hand, Left, Alone, at the Cologne Philharmonie, together with the WDR Sinfonieorchester. Subsequent performances followed with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the DR SymfoniOrkestret and Rotterdam Philharmonisch Orkest, the latter under the baton of Yannick NézetSeguin.
Alexandre’s discography reflects his eclectic affinity to many musical styles. His recordings range from Bach, Mozart, and Haydn (with Les Violons du Roy) to Le Bœuf sur Le Toit: a homage to the roaring twenties. Other discs for ERATO include Autograph, Scarlatti, Journal Intime (Chopin) and the major release of 2016: Bach’s Goldberg Variations. His latest recording features Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2, together with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 2014, he published his first book, Piano Intime, which was followed in early 2017 by a more personal narrative view on his career: Montrez-moi vos mains. Alexandre Tharaud is also featured in a film directed by Michael Haneke (Amour), and Swiss film maker Raphaëlle Aellig-Régnier, Le Temps Dérobé, and has completed a new edition of Maurice Ravel’s complete solo piano works for the German publisher Bärenreiter.
About the Music.
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
1685 – 1750
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (1741)
Program at a Glance
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, is a set of 30 variations bookended by two statements of an aria in G major. Harpsichordist Wanda Landowska described the aria’s transcendently beautiful melody as “grave and yet happy, tranquil and at the same time vibrant with internal life.” The same might be said of Bach’s work as a whole, which runs the gamut of moods and modes, from introspection and lyrical simplicity to brilliance and contrapuntal virtuosity.
The Goldberg Variations owe their name — and possibly their existence — to one of Bach’s star pupils: Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. The budding virtuoso served as court harpsichordist to Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, Russia’s ambassador to the Saxon court in Dresden. Keyserlingk suffered from insomnia; according to Bach’s biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, he asked the composer to write something “soft and somewhat lively” for Goldberg to play to help him sleep. “The Count thereafter called them nothing but his variations. He was never weary of hearing them; and for a long time, when the sleepless nights came, he used to say, ‘Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations.’ Bach was, perhaps, never so well rewarded for any work as for this: The Count made him a present of a golden goblet, filled with one hundred Louis d’or.”
Bach and the Keyboard
Johann Sebastian Bach spent most of his life as a hard-working church musician, tirelessly turning out a prodigious quantity of organ music, cantatas, passions, motets, and other sacred works. But contemporaries knew him best as a celebrated virtuoso on the organ and harpsichord. He composed a wide range of secular instrumental music, from large-scale orchestral suites and concertos to unaccompanied works for sundry instruments. Much of this repertoire — probably including the Goldberg Variations — was featured on the public concerts that Bach organized at a popular coffeehouse in Leipzig in his capacity as director of the local collegium musicum (a university-based, professional-amateur ensemble) in the 1730s and ’40s.
Much like his compositions, Bach’s keyboard playing reflected a synthesis of the learned and heavily contrapuntal German idiom; the melodious, extraverted Italian style; and the French penchant for florid, speech-like arioso. He studied and admired the works of François Couperin and his fellow claveciniste composers, whose harpsichord music demanded exceptional lightness and evenness of touch to achieve its characteristic blend of delicacy and brilliance. Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, noted the economy of his keyboard technique: “Bach is said to have played with so easy and small a motion of the fingers that it was hardly perceptible. Only the first joints of the fingers were in motion; the hand retained even in the most difficult passages its rounded form; the fingers rose very little from the keys, hardly more than in a trill, and when one was employed, the other remained quietly in its position. Still less did the other parts of his body take any share in his play, as happens with many whose hand is not light enough.”
One of Bach’s secrets was an innovative system of fingering that placed the hitherto subordinate thumbs on par with the other digits as principal fingers. This enabled him not only to range with ease across the full spectrum of keys, some of which had traditionally been held to lie awkwardly under the fingers, but also to invest the inner lines of his music with greater complexity and textural interest. In sum, Forkel wrote that Bach “at length acquired such a high degree of facility and, we may almost say, unlimited power over his instrument in all the keys that difficulties almost ceased to exist for him. As well in his unpremeditated [that is, improvised] fantasies as in executing his compositions (in which it is well known that all the fingers of both hands are constantly employed, and have to make motions which are as strange and uncommon as the melodies themselves), he is said to have possessed such certainty that he never missed a note.”
The Art of Variation
As a consummate improviser, Bach naturally excelled at the art of variation — an art as old as music itself. After all, what could be simpler than presenting a short, recognizable theme and then varying or elaborating on it, so that the listener hears the same basic idea again and again, each time with increasing familiarity, understanding, and enjoyment? The principle of variation is central to the forms and procedures of Western music. It underlies the repeating bass patterns of the Renaissance chaconne, the ornate da capo arias of Baroque opera, the elegant symmetries of Classical sonata form, and even the verse-and-refrain structure of popular song forms. The impulse to balance unity with variety runs throughout music history, from medieval dances to Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations, and from the virtuosic concert variations of the 19th century to modern works like Steve Reich’s 1979 Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards.
For Bach and his contemporaries in the early 18th century, the ostinato (or ground) bass provided a ready-made framework for variations in the form of countless chaconnes, passacaglias, and other works. For example, the majestic architecture of the great Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor for unaccompanied violin rests on the simplest and sturdiest of foundations: Its 256 bars are supported by a repeated but ever-changing bass line that serves as the harmonic underpinning for a series of stunningly imaginative variations.
According to Forkel, it was “the constant sameness of the fundamental harmony” that prompted middle-aged Bach to reject variation writing as “an ungrateful task.” Nevertheless, the composer returned to this kind of writing late in life in such masterpieces as the Canonic Variations on the Christmas chorale Vom Himmel hoch, the Crucifixus movement of the B-Minor Mass, The Art of Fugue, and above all, the Goldberg Variations.
About the Work
The Goldberg Variations is the fourth and final part of Bach’s Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice). This composite work is not a set of exercises, as the title suggests, but a wide-ranging survey of mid 18th century keyboard styles, genres, and forms. Published in four installments between 1731 and 1741, it gave Bach an opportunity to display his prowess as a composer and performer alike. Part One consists of six partitas (sometimes called the German Suites) for single-manual harpsichord. Part Two — written, like the Goldberg Variations, for a harpsichord with two manuals — comprises a bravura “concerto after the Italian taste” (the so-called Italian Concerto), and a more suavely ornate “overture after the French manner.” Part Three is a compendium of chorales and other pieces for organ.
The title page of Part Four describes its contents as “an aria with diverse variations … composed for music lovers, to refresh their spirits.” But Bach may have had a more specific recipient in mind: Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, the Russian envoy to the Dresden court, who visited Leipzig regularly in the company of his house harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, one of Bach’s star pupils. Forkel recalls that “the Count was often sickly, and then had sleepless nights. At these times Goldberg, who lived in the house with him, had to pass the night in an adjoining room to play something to him when he could not sleep.
The Count once said to Bach that he should like to have some clavier pieces for his Goldberg, which should be of such a soft and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights.”
Although Forkel’s account is now considered apocryphal — for one thing, as Bach scholar Christoph Wolff points out, Goldberg was a mere boy of 12 or 13 when the work was composed — the name Goldberg Variations has stuck. Performers never tire of the work’s infinite variety, and Bach’s music has lost none of its power to soothe and refresh the listener’s spirits.
A Closer Listen
“In my beginning is my end” — T. S. Eliot’s refrain from the poem “East Coker”— neatly describes the musical excursion on which Bach takes the listener in the Goldberg Variations.
The work begins and ends with a tenderly luminous aria in G major that is itself a miniature set of variations: The first eight bars trace a descending bass pattern that Bach ingeniously teases out to 32 bars. The music’s slow, measured tread is varied by grace notes, turns, trills, crisp “snap” rhythms, and a final cascade of rippling passagework. The 16th-note motion continues in the first of the ensuing 30 variations, this time in the context of a lively two-part invention. Next comes a three-part invention, built on a distinctive upward leap of a fourth, followed by a “canon at the unison,” in which the two upper voices play follow-the-leader.
Bach proceeds to replicate this tripartite scheme throughout the work: Each group of three variations culminates in a canon, with the voices imitating each other at intervals that increase incrementally from unison to a ninth. Such mathematical precision is characteristic of Bach, a devout Lutheran who believed deeply in numbers and proportions as symbols of divine perfection. Yet this predetermined framework afforded ample scope for improvisational variety, from the buoyant dotted rhythms of the gigue-like Variation 7 to the intense minor-key introspection of Variation 25 and the toccata-like brilliance of Variation 28.
The centerpiece of the Goldberg Variations, Variation 16, is cast in the form of a miniature French overture, with a broad, majestic introduction and a fast, fugal second part. At this point Bach seems to turn a corner, as the next 12 variations increasingly place a premium on virtuosity. Not until Variation 30 does the composer allow the song-like impulse to come back to the fore in a contrapuntal quodlibet (medley), incorporating snatches of two German folk tunes. The journey ends, as it began, in the glow of pure lyricism as the opening aria returns, identical to the first hearing and yet ineffably transformed.