This afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, Felix Hell took the console of the Ruffatti Concert Organ to present the final program in the San Francisco Symphony Organ Recital Series. He presented a program consisting only only one selection, his own arrangement Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988, best known as the “Goldberg” variations. The name comes from the often-told story about how harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, in the service of Count Hermann Karl van Keyserlingk, had to help his master’s bouts with insomnia by playing music for him in the middle of the night. This is the sort of story that deserves to be true even if it isn’t; but the greater significance of BWV 988 is that it was published as the fourth and final volume of Bach’s Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice), the complete set serving as a comprehensive document of Bach’s approach to pedagogy.
For the record the first two volumes in this set were written for a single-manual keyboard instrument; and the third was written for organ. The title page of the fourth volume begins with the following text (in English translation):
Keyboard exercise, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals.
Bach clearly had not intended this music to be played on an organ. However, keyboard practice is keyboard practice; and there is much that organ students can learn from examining and trying to play BWV 988. Hell took this suggestion one step further, providing a performing edition that would be suitable for both multiple manuals and a pedal keyboard.
This was a bold undertaking, but it deserves to be taken as a serious one. However, even the most sympathetic serious listener is likely to come away feeling that the results were mixed. The reason for such feelings may be explained with a bit of physics.
Most listeners are aware that the execution of every note includes what is called an amplitude envelope. This envelope defines the amount of time (however brief) it takes the sound to come to “full volume” (known as the “attack time”), the way in which that “full volume” is sustained, and the way in which it then decays into silence. When the key of a keyboard instrument, such as a harpsichord, is struck, the attack time is very rapid, probably even more rapid than when a string is struck by a piano hammer. That short attack time is due to the string being plucked. On an organ, on the other hand, a sound becomes audible by virtue of high-pressure air being forced through a pipe, which means that the attack time is significantly longer.
This makes a difference when polyphonic music is being played from the keyboard. The harpsichord accommodates rapid finger work far better than a pipe organ; and, as a result, it is more conducive to allowing the listener to appreciate the interplay of multiple voices, particularly when the notes in those voices follow each other in rapid succession. (Think about the differences in note durations in the fugue subjects that Bach wrote for organ when compared with those encountered in The Well-Tempered Clavier.)
Hell’s performance this afternoon suggested that he was well aware of how susceptible his playing would be to the laws of physics. For the most part he chose his tempos judiciously, honoring the priority that Bach placed on clarity of all voices in a polyphonic fabric. Fortunately, the lion’s share of the variations were written with such polyphony in mind. However, when Bach shifted his attention of full-handed chords and harmonic progressions, the sonorities of the massive Ruffatti Concert Organ tended to undermine the composers’ intentions, no matter how skilled Hell’s technique was. On a few of those occasions, Hell was able to substitute an appropriately dramatic rhetoric to supplant Bach’s pedagogical intentions; but there were still more than a few moments during Hell’s execution when one heard little more than a muddle of pipes sounding simultaneously.
The final Quodlibet variation of BWB 988, whose intricacy was not quite up to performance on a pipe organ (from the first published edition, on Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Fortunately, Hell offered an encore for those who had waited patiently to listen to some of Bach’s music that was actually composed for organ. He selected what may be the most popular of such pieces, the BWV 565 coupling of a toccata and fugue in D minor. To reward the audience for their patience, Hell served up about as lush an account of the toccata as could be imagined. It would have been physically unwise (if not impossible) to “pull out all the stops;” but the first full chord of that toccata roared even louder than it usually does in Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of the piece. For all of that outrageous bluster, however, Hell still executed the fugue in a way that honored the sort of clarity that Bach always felt such polyphony deserved.
Thus, while there may have been a few missteps along the way, Hell served up a journey that satisfied the criteria of both informative and entertaining listening.