When I first got to know the Goldberg Variations many years ago, I wondered why there were so many recordings of them in the original form for twomanual harpsichord or one piano, but only one or two in the version heard here, for two pianos. After all, they would seem to be a natural choice for piano duos. I’d like to suggest a possible solution to the riddle:
After the works of Johann Sebastian Bach were rediscovered by Mendelssohn, many composers took an interest in Bach’s music. The standard arrangements of Bach by Busoni, Siloti and many others are particularly outstanding. But it is this very attention itself that leads to a fundamental problem: these arrangements were done at the height of the romantic period, so Bach’s music was arranged to be played in the musical language of that time. At first the music was viewed as a subject for academic study in counterpoint and performed, for example, as sacred music or even debased to mere finger exercises. When Rheinberger did his arrangement in 1883, he didn’t hesitate even to add additional notes, change voice leading here and there and double parts. His intention was to give the Goldberg Variations a more important place in the musical life of the time. In the preface to his first edition he wrote: “May this arrangement, made in all reverence for two pianos, serve to make musicians and music lovers familiar and comfortable with this treasure trove of true music for domestic use.”
Max Reger was very impressed by Rheinerger’s version and performed it with great success with various duo partners from 1909 onwards. In 1915 he published a version in which he made modifications and additions by consciously adding legato and staccato signs and other performance indications. One might say that Max Reger presented a written version of his own interpretation. This is the sort of thing that present-day pianists do when they prepare a piece and include their own subjective ideas. Today’s performer, however, now has to confront the question: Should one perform a particular piece as Bach himself would have wanted it – at least according to the currently held view of what this might be – or should one also consider the romantic adaptations of people such as Rheinberger and Reger? There are very many opinions about the “right way” to play Bach.
Veritable religious wars are waged on the subject. If, however, it’s a real priority for a performer or duo to have success and recognition, one quickly reaches the conclusion that it’s better to keep well away from this particular piece. It’s highly unlikely that Bach purists would be impressed under any circumstances, and “romantic fetishists” would find the music too formal and stiff, even if played in a romantic style. That makes it virtually dangerous for an established piano duo to record the piece, but we’ve taken the risk anyway. In my opinion the Goldberg Variations, both in their scope and tonal language, possess a nonchalance and light-heartedness which is unparalleled elsewhere in Bach’s music. As Bach himself expressed it, the work is intended to give emotional pleasure. To use a modern expression, it’s entertainment music, but of the most ingenious sort. Hats off to Bach’s intellectual achievement! Music may and even should go hand in hand with amusement and edification. But to achieve this mixture is extremely demanding. As a wise man once said: “Nothing is so hard as to seem easy”. In a structural sense the work is very simple.
Each variation consists of twice 16 measures, whereby each section is repeated. So it’s wonderfully appropriate that the theme of the aria is extended in variations 1, 8 and 19, because it’s not the melody but the harmonic infrastructure, which is most obvious throughout the variations. In contrast with Bach, who indicates explicitly at the end of the quodlibet (Variation 30) “Aria da Capo e Fine”, this direction is missing in the Rheinberg/Reger version. So it remains unclear, whether he regarded the D.C. as too obvious to need mentioning, or whether he wanted consciously to end after the quodlibet. The really monumental setting of the end of the arrangement might well suggest that he wanted to conclude without “da capo”. We wanted to offer the listener both possibilities, and for that reason the “aria da capo” isn’t listed in the booklet, but nonetheless begins after a brief moment of reflection. The listener can turn the player off in the short break if so desired. In thinking about the work, I considered how it might sound if a version were to be played first in a really “baroque” way and we were then to weave the suggestions of Rheinberger and Reger in in the repeat. The order in which the various things happen could be quite free. In doing things in this way, the performer just can’t be timid in the execution. Some of the articulation really is quite sharp and startling. Reger in particular pointed the way to many possibilities which we didn’t want to keep from you. We also tried to adapt the dynamic range in the romantic versions of the sections of the piece to the romantic notions prevailing in Reger’s time. Where ornaments are appropriate, we executed them in a baroque style.
The difficulty in performing the work publicly lies in the enormous demands placed on the ensemble skills of both pianists. Some things seem almost intentionally to be written in such a way that one is doomed to failure! I was eager to present the music live on stage. I wanted to experience the audience reaction at any price. So I asked Jihye Lee, at that time my concert exam student, if she would like to join me in the experiment. We were very surprised at the enormous success of our music. Something extraordinary and wonderful occurred at the very first concert: a member of the audience asked me if there were a recording of the work interpreted in our way.
I didn’t know of any at that time. The name of the music lover was Ulrich Jakobi. He told his friends with great enthusiasm about this interpretation which was completely new for him. “The dialogue between the pianos! The coordinated way each instrument maintains its own individuality, and how they complement each other synergistically like a pair of dancers! It was thrilling.” That was how Ulrich Jakobi described his fascination to me. Then, in the autumn of 2015 I received a surprising letter. It came from a dear friend of Ulrich Jakobi. The person was himself a genuine music lover, who had set his mind on giving his friend Ulrich Jakobi a very special birthday present: the idea was that Ulrich should be able to enjoy our interpretation whenever and wherever he wanted to. So it simply had to be recorded as a CD! Aided by my recording producer of many years, Richard Berg, and with the financial support of the company Sander Strothmann GmbH as co-producer, we were able to start recording this CD at the beginning of 2016. The graphic department of the firm SanderStrothmann GmbH was responsible for designing the cover booklet. Michael Sander wrote to me: “Bach’s music possesses for us an absolute quality which is independent of a particular epoch. Bach is simply always modern. Bach electrified and at times shocked his contemporaries with the sometimes radically intellectual aspects of his works. In their turn, the Romantics were inspired by his music, as this recording demonstrates, and there is hardly any jazz musician who hasn’t made use of parallels between Bach’s counterpoint and jazz. So Bach is not merely the representative of a particular period. Rather, his music bears timeless witness to the heights to which the human spirit can ascend in a combination of intellect and subtle emotionalism. Bach’s keyboard music stands for the musicality of the human race, and that was the reason it was included on the famous Golden Record which since 1977 has been journeying through the endless bounds of the universe on the space capsule Voyager, and it was also the inspiration for the design of this CD cover.”
So what you are now holding is a very special CD. It’s a CD embodying several stories and it relates how these stories suddenly merged together: beginning with the courage to take the risk of unusual interpretations, proceeding with the love of a concert-goer for our music and continuing with a deep friendship; it culminated finally in this recording of the whole version. I’m very happy that you have now also become part of the story, and I wish you much pleasure in listening to our CD and giving it to others as a present.
Peter von Wienhardt