At the end of this week, the Australian AlFi label will release a new recording entitled The New Goldberg Variations (currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com). While the title may strike many as provocative, it would be better to take this recording as an affirmation of the principle that there are always new ways to play the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. (For that matter, any composer worth playing at all should allow for new ways in which his/her music may be played.)
The story behind this album is that violinist Zoë Black, Assistant Leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra for five years, asked pianist Joe Chindamo to “write a part for her” into Bach’s BWV 988 set of 30 variations on an aria best known as the “Goldberg” variations. Chindamo is primarily a jazz pianist, which means that he is used to the idea that the act of making music is not necessarily strictly a matter of “decoding” a set of marks on paper. Nevertheless, he set himself the rule that he would “not alter a single note Bach wrote,” meaning that what resulted amounted to the superposition of a part for violin on top of Bach’s composition.
Before considering the results of this effort, it is important to bear in mind the circumstances behind BWV 988 as Bach wrote it. Anyone who knows this music probably also knows Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s story about the harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg and his insomniac patron, Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk; but, while that is a delightful story it overlooks the circumstances behind Bach’s decision to publish the music that Goldberg would play for his master in the middle of the night. That publication was the fourth and final volume of a series that Bach called Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice), which was intended for pedagogical purposes.
However, for Bach pedagogy entailed far more than that aforementioned process of decoding. Notation might provide a relatively thorough account of which keys needed to be struck at what times, but for Bach the way in which the key was struck was just as important as when it was struck. Furthermore, as we know from the title page of the 1723 publication of the two-part and three-part inventions (BWV 722–801), the ability “to have good inventions [ideas]” while performing was just as important as honoring what has been notated.
Of course coming up with variations on a given theme is one example of “having good ideas.” However, there is a strong possibility that the Friday evening gatherings of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house (where Bach participated enthusiastically) involved invention during performance that could probably be taken for what we now call “jamming,” even to the extent of adding new lines of music on top of the ones that others were playing from their pages of notation. Thus, faced with adding a violin part to BWV 988, a jazz musician familiar with such jamming techniques could easily be better equipped than any composer with little, if any, “hands on” experience with making jazz.
To be sure, nothing about Chindamo’s work sounds particularly jazzy. Instead, however, it at least suggests that, during his lifetime, Bach himself may have picked up a violin and started playing along while one of his pupils (probably one of his sons) was playing music from BWV 988 at the keyboard. In other words the only justification for “new” in the title is that neither Bach nor anyone after him ever took the trouble to legitimize such a form of “jamming” by documenting it! Thus, Chindamo’s achievement is less impressive for its “novelty” and more for its power to invoke a process that may have occupied Bach himself when he was holding a violin rather than sitting at a keyboard.
There remains the question of whether BWV 988 was ever intended to be “performed,” beginning to end, as some kind of “concert” offering. In all likelihood, this was not a “legitimate practice” in Bach’s time; but we cannot avoid the fact that centuries of “professional concertizing” have made it one. As a result, we now have pianists, such as András Schiff, who have come to play the full traversal of the 30 variations as if they constitute some kind of “listening journey.” Indeed, when Schiff played BWV 988 at a recital in San Francisco in October of 2013, his notes for the program book explicitly used that noun “journey.” He even wrote down a suggestion for how the listener would be able to “keep to the path” that journey: “Always follow the bass line.”
This brings me to my one quibble with this new recording by Black and Chindamo. Sometimes even the most attentive listener needs to strain to establish just where that bass line is. (Yes, Virginia, it is not the same from one variation to the next. That is but one of the ways in which the variations that unfold are so inventive!) This is a problem that is shared by both performers. Sometimes Chindamo lets his left hand go weaker than it should, but there are also times when Black overshadows everything he is doing. Nevertheless, because this is such a major undertaking and so much is done not only well but also in the spirit of Bach himself, it is a bit churlish to harp on a lesser characteristic simply because it goes against the grain of one highly reputable Bach scholar.