Monumental pieces for the piano occupy a special place in the repertoire – recently I saw Oliver Messiaen’s epic Visions de l’Amen duet played by Aimard and Stefanovich, for example. Players treat these pieces differently than they do orchestral works, program music or chamber pieces. My experience is extremely limited, but Lars Vogt’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations yesterday at Chicago’s Symphony Center was another example. My appreciation for Bach is leagues deeper than my appreciation for Messiaen – for me the experience was mesmerizing.
The technical complexity of Bach’s composition, accomplished within a theme and variations structure, is immense. Program notes by Richard Rodda indicate that the Variations ”encompass nearly all that he knew about music.” Beginning with an aria rooted in a Sarabande he composed earlier for his wife Ana Magdalena, the thirty variations that follow parade formal structures in front of the listener 16 and 32 measures at a time. As a kind of organizational tool, every third variation is a canon, a type of round – there’s a structure to the progression of the canons as well, from unison through octaves all the way through a canon at the ninth interval as the 27th variation.
Vogt’s final return to the opening aria, after pouring himself into the thirty variations for over an hour, was tender, subtle, and pure. The emotion embedded in these formal structures amazes me, as it has for fans of Bach for centuries. The piano prowess required to pull it off is herculean.
There’s lore associated with the Goldberg Variations that is likely not true so it’s a bit annoying that it keeps getting repeated. Therefore I won’t repeat the story about a wealthy insomniac count who wanted a composition that his house pianist – a too-young-to-be-plausible Johann Goldberg, 14 years old at the time – could play for him in the middle of his sleepless nights. Nor will I repeat the part about Bach being given a golden goblet of cash for the composition, the greatest sum he ever received for a work.
Prior to the program, I was chatting with some folks around me very briefly and learned that one of the men would be leaving after intermission – before the Goldberg. Unlike me, he had come out in the bitterly cold and snowy Chicago day for the Brahms preamble to the Variations, the two selections that kicked off the program. They were Three Intermezzos, Opus 117, and Four Piano Pieces, Opus 119, both late works for the keyboard by the master Romantic composer and pianist. Both sets are exquisite, subtle, and deeply moving. The notion that Brahms’s later works, such as these, are full of sorrow was well-supported by Vogt’s performance of them yesterday.
Vogt is a Berlin-based pianist who has seemingly done it all – he now splits his time between a concert piano career and regular conducting work. In addition to guest conducting with many prestigious ensembles, he’s currently the music director for the Royal Northern Sinfonia. In the online notes for this program, Vogt delights in the idea that the Goldberg Variations provide him the opportunity to create an intimate, communal experience for the listeners – they hold a special place in his repertoire. I think most of us at Symphony Center yesterday felt it.
Thanks for reading.