An opportunity to hear the Goldberg Variations in live performance on harpsichord is rare enough. But the latest offering from Byron Schenkman & Friends was special in several ways. For one thing, it marked the first time that Byron Schenkman has presented a program in his chamber music series without himself being one of the performers. The Spanish harpsichordist Ignacio Prego had the show to himself for about 80 uninterrupted minutes.
Byron Schenkman is a widely recorded artist who has long been a fixture in Seattle’s early music scene, whether as a soloist at the keyboard (harpsichord or modern piano) or in chamber groups. In 1994 he co-founded Seattle Baroque Orchestra with violinist Ingrid Matthews, and he inaugurated Schenkman & Friends in 2013 as a chamber music series focused on the Baroque and Classical eras. The series sometimes extends into other realms, but its anchor is an early-music perspective. The series offers five concerts a season at Nordstrom Recital Hall, the smaller performance space in the Benaroya Hall complex.
In his brief introduction to his guest artist, Schenkman pointed out that J.S. Bach has been an ongoing thread to the current season, which opened with a look at Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn’s love of the Baroque master. A similar juxtaposition, focused on Mozart, awaits in the season’s final program on April 30.
Openness and Patience
“If I had to summarize what is so special about the Goldberg Variations,” Schenkman said, “I would use the two words ‘openness’ and ‘patience.'”
He explained that this unparalleled keyboard masterpiece shows Bach opening up an idea to reveal inexhaustible potential. The thirty variations survey the entire spectrum of “world music” as Bach knew it at the time, from Italian melody and grandiose French style to the intricate structures of Northern counterpoint. There’s even a nod to contemporary popular music in the final variation. And Bach traverses chronology as well, looking back to what was “early music” from his perspective.
“But instead of a mishmash of different styles,” Schenkman pointed out, “Bach weaves all of these aspects together into an ingenious whole. In contrast to the crazed pace of our world today, he invites you to listen and patiently follow the path of these variations as they unfold. By the time we hear the original theme itself again [the “Aria” played da capo at the end], we realize the extent of the journey on which he’s taken us.”
Prego made his Seattle debut in 2014, when Schenkman invited him to play harpsichord concertos by J.S. Bach for the opening concert of the second season of Schenkman & Friends. The Spanish artist, who studied in Juilliard’s Historical Performances program, has been winning accolades over the past few years for his sensitive accounts of Baroque keyboard music. He recently released a recording of the Goldbergs (on the Glossa label), the third CD in his discography to date. (The other two are also all-Bach CDs, including an excellent interpretation of the French Suites.)
But experiencing the Goldberg Variations in live performance belongs to a category all its own, as Sunday evening confirmed. Along with the real-time reverberation of the music, that experience includes para-performance moments: observing Prego’s reactions, seeing him pause to shift registration between variations.
The Harpsichord Factor
For those like myself who encounter this music much more frequently on modern pianos, the sonority of the harpsichord opens new vistas. Granted, it may be an acquired taste (to mix a metaphor) for ears accustomed to the harsh, extroverted sonic environment of contemporary life. Again, the element of patience: Prego’s sustained focus kept pulling me in, making me want to hear each thread as he stitched it.
Quite soon I began finding that the clichéd “tinkly” sound often evoked by the idea of the “harpsichord” had vanished. In its place, I was hearing a delightful succession of colors and blends, sometimes mimicking a guitar, sometimes a soulful organ; I could even imagine an avant-garde electro-music experiment.
Prego used his extraordinary variety of touch to add vibrancy to these colors. His musical intelligence is of a high order and ensured a clarity that was nothing short of breathtaking in the counterpoint of Variation 10 (a Fughetta). Other variations (e.g.,No. 16, a French-style Ouverture) sprang to life with a transparency of articulation that was deeply gratifying.
The Adagio (Variation 25, famously known as “the black pearl”) was a somber meditation, sans the romantic pathos that seems unavoidable on a piano. I’m not sure how to describe the difference, for Prego conveyed its tragic inwardness effectively. Something in the inborn restraint of the instrument made the affect all the more engrossing.
An Inexhaustible Work
At the same time, Prego didn’t rely on exaggerated gestures to make points. The joyfully animated dance of the Giga (Variation 7) was so infectious, that it nearly caused me to erupt in giggles. Yet, this was in part because of how natural Prego made it seem, as the outcome of Bach’s flow of ideas, not a mere contrast for effect—Bach’s openness.
The Goldbergs is a composition that can never disclose all its secrets, no matter how many times you listen to it, or even perform it. (Gramophone has an interesting ongoing forum on the topic “do we need another Goldberg Variations” here.)
That point never fails to hit home when I hear the da capo Aria in its context of conclusion, a benediction over the previous 75 minutes of music. (Prego played the complete repeats.) It’s never “the same” as the melody from the beginning, even though the notes are. Using its harmonic progression, the basis of the 30 variations, Bach has revealed too much of life, has ramified into too many alternate universes, to retain that opening innocence.
As I listened to Prego playing the da capo, I kept thinking of that image of the pastness of the melody, its scarred state. At this point in the work, it has a Sisyphean aspect: We try to recapture it when it was still a blank slate, like a dream we desperately desire to remember.