On Sunday, April 21, at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston, music lovers were treated to a live performance of the Goldberg Variations by Russian pianist Sergei Babayan. Though it is now common (and accurate) to hear that Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations, composed for the clavier in 1741, as one of the supreme masterworks of music, indeed one of the highest achievements of Western Civilization, its standing has not always been so secure or so lofty. It was only the recording of the work in 1955, some 200 years after its composition, by Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist and eccentric's eccentric (though, it should be added, a supreme virtuoso, at least when the work suited him), that the Goldbergs found their way into the public eye. Since that time, the Goldberg Variations have leaped to a position near the top of Bach's works. Many talented pianists have left their imprint on the Variations, but public recital of the works is a fairly rare occurrence because of the intricacy of the compositions and the extraordinary skill required to interpret them well.
What makes the Goldberg Variations special is that, like all of Bach's music, it makes extraordinary use of the technique of counterpoint, in which multiple themes are combinedsimultaneously to create an exceptionally beautiful and complex-sounding harmony. The Goldbergs are based on an aria for keyboard, in this case a simple but almost indescribably sublime melody, which is then the subject of the 30 variations, before the aria is recapitulated at the end of the work. The variations have a wide range of speeds and melodies which evoke several different emotions on the part of the listener.
Sergei Babayan's performance was a highly impressive demonstration of the difficulty posed by Bach's work, and it was physical proof of how incredibly demanding Bach's work is, especially for a solo performer. The numerous strands of melody the interpreter is required to join to create the counterpoint of Bach's music demands unbelievable concentration, and skill; a single false note throws the work completely off course, and Babayan wasn't about to hit one. His tempi were fast (though nowhere near as fast as Gould's in his 1955 recording,) and I found myself at times breathless to watch this virtuoso navigate his way through the wonderful highs of the piece. It would not be an exaggeration to describe Mr. Babayan's performance as spellbinding, and a privilege to hear.
This performance of the Goldberg Variations is part of the ongoing “Bach Week” festivities in the Chicagoland area, which started April 19 and continue until May 5. For more info, please visit www.bachweek.org.