Goldberg Variations BWV988 [1741]

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (b. 1685 - d. 1750)
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Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (b. 1685 - d. 1750)

Performance date: 24/06/2023

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1741

Duration: 01:21:44

Recording Engineer: Gar Duffy, RTÉ

Instrumentation: 2vn, va, vc

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Ardeo Quartet - [String Quartet]

Goldberg Variations BWV988 [1741] Transcribed for string quartet by François Meimoun [2014]

Composed for music-lovers for their pleasure by Johann Sebastian Bach – so reads the title page of the first edition of the Goldberg Variations. Johann Goldberg was a young harpsichordist in the service of the Russian Ambassador to the Dresden Court, Count Keyserlingk, who suffered from insomnia and according to legend begged Bach to write him some music to while away his sleepless nights. Like all good stories it is inherently unlikely, but the title has stuck.

The modern string quartet did not exist in Bach’s day so it is not surprising that quartets seek ways to play the works of the greatest Master of all. François Meimoun explains: The transcription of the Goldbergs took place within a context of total respect for the original text. No changes of notes or rhythms. The transcription is an orchestration of the text for four string players. All the instruments are not systematically required simultaneously: variations for two, three or four instruments follow in succession. The redistribution of the material enables new lines to be heard that are often difficult to hear within the uniform sound context of keyboards.

The aria that Bach uses as a theme for his variations is a dignified sarabande, full of tenderness and poise. It is also highly embellished with ornaments that are an essential part of the melodic line, not optional extras. Throughout we have the same harmonic structure of thirty two bars, moving from the main key of G major through the dominant of D major to the relative of E minor and returning home in the last eight bars. On these foundations Bach builds his magnificent edifice with its wonderful proportions and astonishing variations.

These are organised in groups of three for maximum contrast and cumulative effect. Each group begins with a free variation, often in the form of an exhilarating dance. The next in the set is a toccata with the most brilliant and virtuosic variations in this group. The third variation takes the form of a contrapuntal canon in two parts, usually with a free bass line below based on the theme. In these the two upper voices engage in exact imitation, beginning at the unison in Variation 3, and moving up step by step so that Variation 27 is a canon at the ninth. 

The first Variation bursts in with the joy and seemingly unlimited energy that this work rejoices in. It is followed by a three-part invention instead of a toccata, while the canon of Variation 3 has the upper voices cheerfully dancing in on the same note just one bar apart. The second group begins with a heavy-footed country dance followed by the first of the brilliant toccatas, yet another outburst of irrepressible joy. Variation six is a canon at the second with a gorgeous descending scale as the motive, which alternates irresistibly between rising and falling. This is one of the most memorable variations. 

The third group opens with a French gigue, distinguished by dotted rhythms and sharp ornamentation, while the toccata again explodes with energy, contrasting dramatically with the beatifically expressive theme of the Variation 9, a canon at the interval of a third. Variation 10 is a joyful fughetta in 4 parts bursting with delicious decorations and full of cheerful delight designed to restore the spirits of our insomniac Count. Next is a toccata in 12/16 time brilliantly and effervescently decorated. Variation 12 is a canon by inversion, where the second voice is in contrary motion to the first. The increasing complexity of these canons is a compositional feat of extraordinary skill but our real amazement must be at the emotional and spiritual power of the work as a whole. 

Variation 13 is a long, gentle, slow movement, the only one in the first half of the Goldberg. The cantabile melody soars above its accompaniment while Variation 14 is just the opposite, a crazy, highly decorated cascade. This all flashes by so fast it is gone before you can absorb its extravagant brilliance. Variation 15 is a canon on the fifth and the first of the minor key variations. The tempo is Andante and the time signature is 2/4 so the music keeps flowing as the contrasting descending and ascending figures balance the minor key sadness with their hopeful upward movement. The bass line joins in the drama imitating the sighs and wide intervals of the upper voices. At the end we are left suspended in the ethereal.

Variation 16 opens the second half with great ceremony and splendour. It is a grandiose double-dotted French Overture with running scales and brilliant trills followed by a faster fugal section as is customary in a French Overture. Variation 17 is a light-footed toccata, while Variation 18, a canon at the sixth, is also full of good cheer signified by the bass dancing merrily beneath the singing of the canonic voices.

Variation 19 is another charming dance, this time in 3/8, while Variation 20 requires a fearless display of technique as well as abundant good humour. Part of the delight of these toccatas is the sense of pushing the technical skill of performers to the limit. The canon at the seventh that follows as Variation 21 is a complete change of mood and tempo bringing back G minor to great effect.

Variation 22 returns to G major and is marked alla breve. It has a four-square solidity to it as though it is a foundation for new beginnings. Perhaps Bach saw it as the start of the final sequence of variations. Variation 23 is another toccata that luxuriates in brilliant virtuoso decorations, while Variation 24 presents us with a brief moment of repose. It is the canon at the octave in 9/8 time and the only canon where the leading voice switches parts in the middle of a section. Despite the sophistication of the canon, the mood is relaxed and gentle, as though to prepare us for the emotional rigours of the next and most famous variation.

Variation 25 is an arioso of great intensity, known as the black pearl. The tempo marking is adagio, which makes it much longer than the other variations. The repeated note ornament that Bach uses at the beginning is wonderfully expressive and very vocal. Variation 26 is another virtuoso toccata, whose breakneck speed and exotic decorations are in exhilarating contrast to the black pearl. The last canon, Variation 27, is at the interval of a ninth and for the first time has no supporting bass. The two canonic voices have enormous fun imitating each other in what was undoubtedly one of Bach’s favourite games.

This leads without pause to the wide leaps and wild trills of Variation 28. This really is the final stretch and the composer allows himself no let-up as his imagination unleashes itself. Variation 29 is even more uninhibited ranging from the opening drumbeats to the descending cavalcades of notes that follow. So we are led into Variation 30 which, against all expectation, turns out to be an earthy Bach family joke, described as a Quodlibet, which is Latin for whatever you please and was a melange of popular tunes superimposed on top of each other – apparently Bach family feasts used to conclude with improvised and bawdy quodlibets. From the ridiculous to the sublime, Bach concludes by bringing back his Aria in its original form. The long journey is over and we are back precisely where we began.

Francis Humphrys