Goldberg Variations

Bach: Goldberg Variations
Nathaniel Mander, harpsichord
ICSM / Chronos ICSM018. 42’28

The Goldberg Variations is one of the most complex of all Bach’s keyboard works to understand and perform, so it is a brave move for anybody to make it their debut recording. However, Nathaniel Mander does have at least one distinguished predecessor in Glen Gould’s 1955 debut recording. It was published in 1741 under the (publisher’s) title of Clavierubung IV, following the earlier Clavierubung I, II, and III. The title implies that it is ‘Keyboard practice’, but it certainly is far more than that. Bach (who called it Aria with diverse variations for a harpsichord with two manuals) notes that it was “composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits”, which gives a far more appropriate impression of its status. The legend that Bach wrote the variations for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg is almost certainly not true, not least because Goldberg was just 13 at the time. But he was clearly a gifted player, and was a student of Bach’s son, Wilhelm Friedemann in Dresden, and also took lessons with J.S. Bach in Leipzig.

In his introductory notes, Nathaniel Mander refers to “the elegant and poised dances, which are infused into each variation and so fundamental to the eighteenth-century aesthetic” and goes on to note that “The extremes of emotion that Bach crystallises within his superlative writing for the harpsichord seem to give endless inspiration for both the player and the listener”.

As well as the technical difficulties of actually playing the notes, several questions of interpretation arise. An important one in this recording is the decision to omit all the repeats, reducing the playing time to 42’28. This will irritate some, but I don’t have a problem with it. Repeats in such a monumental work are always tricky, not least in working out how to play them – exactly the same is not really historically appropriate but, otherwise, what can you add to Bach’s own thoughts. In any case, the variations tend to build up their own musical and emotional momentum which repeats can diffuse.

Mander writes that he has “gone for a very direct and pure account” with an emphasis on the “elegant and poised dances, which are infused into each variation and so fundamental to the eighteenth-century aesthetic”. His playing is subtly expressive. He uses his own harpsichord (a modern copy by Andrew Garlick of a 1749 Goujon), commenting on the “extremely pretty” sound of the treble, and the “very appealing” depth and power of resonance, “making it the right sort of expressive instrument on which to play Bach’s music”. It was recorded in St Martin’s Church, Barcheston in Warwickshire, which offers an attractive acoustic to the recording.

Mander doesn’t always make it easy for himself, for example, by playing the finger-twisting variations 5 and 29 on one manual despite Bach’s indicated option of using two manuals. His choice of speeds can veer towards the brisk in several instances but, in the more lyrical variations (13 and 25), he adopts a sensitive sense of rhetoric in the melodic line.

Although I would obviously encourage you to buy the CD (available here), not least for the financial aid of the performer, I also recommend viewing the YouTube video of Nathaniel Mander playing the variations the day before the recording. Watching the complex hand movements is an experience in itself.