Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performance (SFP) presented the last of the three recitals in its Young Masters Series, designed to introduce audiences to rising talents. The program consisted entirely of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of 30 (“Goldberg”) variations on an aria theme, a sarabande that can be found in the so-called Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. The recitalist was was Italian pianist Beatrice Rana, making her San Francisco debut. This was the music that constituted Rana’s first solo album for Warner Classics, which was released this past February.
For those who follow this site regularly, this concert came at the end of what had been a good week for writing about Bach. On Monday violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Cédric Tiberghien began their SFP recital with Bach’s BWV 1017 sonata for violin and keyboard in C minor. Tiberghien’s clarity of execution made it clear that there were only two voices active in the keyboard part for each of the four movements, meaning that each of those movements could be taken as a three-part invention. Bach’s fondness for three-part inventions was then underscored with yesterday’s release of the album Bach Trios by Nonesuch Records, a generous share of the three-part genre in a variety of different settings, all performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, mandolinist Chris Thile, and bassist Edgar Meyer.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the vast majority of the 30 variations in BWV 988 can be taken as either two-part or three-part inventions; and this provides a point of departure for addressing the shortcomings in Rana’s approach to playing this composition. The capacity for invention was always foremost in Bach’s mind, particularly in his role as a pedagogue, first for his sons and later as Cantor of the Thomasschule zu Leipzig. However, the appreciation of invention in BWV 988 is best guided by a rule that András Schiff emphasized in the program notes he prepared when he played this music in October of 2013 in Davies Symphony Hall. The rule was simple: “Always follow the bass line.” Invention will always be derived from that line, either melodically or harmonically.
Thus, the first shortcoming in last night’s performance (which could have been anticipated by listening to her recording) was the frequency with which Rana neglected to provide a clear account of the bass line. Mind you, were BWV 988 is concerned, establishing awareness of that bass line is not always an easy matter. However, we must remember that, regardless of any stories about the insomniac Count Hermann Karl van Keyserlingk, BWV 988 is always best considered as the fourth and final volume of Bach’s Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice), a monumental testament to pedagogy that occupied his attention towards the end of his life. As Eric Bromberger’s notes for last night reminded us all, Keyserlingk’s court harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, was only fourteen years old. If Bach really did write this music for him, it would have had more to do with his recognizing that the youth still had much to learn than with Keyserlingk’s sleeping habits. It is thus not out of the question to assume that Bach would sometimes deliberately “encrypt” the bass in the interest of furthering Goldberg’s training.
This then brings us to the second shortcoming, which was that Rana gave surprisingly little attention to establishing awareness that most of the variations (not to mention the aria itself) involved the interplay of only two or three voices. This was particularly evident in the nine canons that occur in all of the variations whose numbers are integer multiples of three. Even the most sympathetic listener would have had considerable difficulty in sorting out which voices were in play at which times. All too often it seemed as if all that mattered where such clearly contrapuntal writing was involved was that the counterpoint provided a texture from which thematic motifs would occur and recur, usually in different registers, as the piece progressed.
The result was a delivery that pretty much consistently honored all of the marks on the manuscript pages but did not make for much of a listening experience. To be fair, Bach-the-pedagogue was as challenging to the listener in BWV 988 as he was the the keyboardist. Furthermore, the challenge goes far beyond whether or not he expected either the performer or the listener to treat BWV 988 as a single unified composition to be played from beginning to end just like the keyboard suites that were also included in the Clavier-Übung collection. Each variation is a challenge unto itself, and whether or not the listener can rise to that challenge has to do with how successful the performer is in rising to it.
What all of those challenges have in common is that they involve syntax. We all know what it is like when someone who does not know a language tries to read it out loud. Even if the pronunciation is not mangled, lack of any knowledge of syntax entails lack of phrasing, which means that the utterance is unlikely to make very much sense. In training opera singers, Lotfi Mansouri was a stickler for insisting that the vocalist always be able to translate the text of the aria into English. Knowing the syntax of the utterance, even in translation, was critical to the proper execution of the phrasing of the music.
However, where a three-part invention is concerned, phrasing is not just a matter of what each of the voices is doing. Syntax applies not only horizontally along the flow of each part but also vertically through the well-formed superposition of those parts. (One would be hard-pressed to find a “vertical slice” through any part of Bach that was not well-formed!) In other words the grammar is “two-dimensional,” applying as much to simultaneities at any given moment as to the sequencing of each part.
I would therefore argue that Rana’s performance of BWV 988 did little to lead the attentive listener in the task of this “two-dimensional parsing” of what (s)he was hearing. Instead, Rana tended to concentrate on the broad sweep of sonorous effects, a priority that succeeds for a few of the variations but definitely not for all of them. Furthermore, when those effects mattered the most, in the penultimate variation, Rana failed to endow them with a sense of climax, even if they could be taken as the “highest peak” in the entire cycle. What emerged was still a commendable act of dexterity that certainly had notable moments of showmanship. However, what was missing was that underlying pedagogical spirit of the Clavier-Übung that motivated this music in the first place. The result was an impressive display of skillful execution through which any resemblance to Bach was little more than purely coincidental.