GOldIt seemed particularly appropriate to go to the Wigmore Hall on Friday May 9th for a late night concert starting at 10pm to hear Joanna MacGregor play The Goldberg Variations – given the (probably mythical) back story of Bach composing the variations as an aid to the insomnia of Count Kaiserling, as first related by Forkel. Indeed the couple next to us slept throughout the entire performance, despite our position right at the front of the hall, to the left of the piano. I’d read Tovey’s famous extended essay on the Variations in the days before the concert, and it helped especially to bear in mind some of his arguments – for instance the organization and central importance of the canons, which occur at every third variation and gradually widen out from the first unison canon to the second, third, fourth interval (etc) right up to the octave. Tovey points out how Bach particularly emphasizes the characteristics of each interval in the individual treatment of each of the canons – and says that, despite their strict formality, they form the emotional heart of the work. Following the progress of these canons as the intervals become wider, an entirely audible process, is a great way of keeping your bearings during a performance.

Tovey also discusses the underlying dance forms that are used within the variations, and it’s this aspect that MacGregor is particularly notable for. Many of us grew up listening to Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording, which while quirky (to say the least) articulates the counterpoint with crystal clarity. MacGregor is at her strongest when bringing out the dance aspects of movements, with their unpredictable accents and phrases flowing freely across the bar lines. A good example is the brief but lively variation number four, in fast 3/8 time and with an emphasis on clipped quaver rhythms. It’s possibly an example of the baroque passepied dance (a form Bach uses elsewhere, such as in the first orchestral suite). For comparison, Gould’s version sounds plodding, and as it omits all the repeats is only 29 seconds long, too brief to make its impact.

From our position at the front left hand side we also had a good view of the keyboard, and could see MacGregor expertly negotiate the intricate and virtuosic cross-hand passages that result from some of the variations being written for instruments with two separate keyboard manuals. I’ve always loved the atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall, and recommend the rest of the series of late concerts, including particularly interesting programmes from  New York Polyphony (June 27th) and Anne Sofie von Otter with Steven Isserlis and Bengt Forsberg (July 4th). 

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