Thursday, May 26, 2016

Jottings: Slice of life - 14

Goldberg Variations..

It is one of those mysteries of life and art  how great artists sometimes produce something completely unpremeditated and almost effortlessly to satisfy a trifling demand, to please an acquaintance or merely at the spur of the moment. And that frame of painting, book or piece of music becomes a masterpiece in the eyes of future generations. History is full of such works of genius. For instance, In between laborious symphonic compositions Beethoven found time to write a short piano piece for a young child of 13, which is now universally and fondly called "Fur Elise" , or a Leonardo da Vinci painting "virgin on the rocks", almost out of boredom - which now proudly hangs in the Louvre, and acknowledged by connoisseurs to be one of his most profound works of art, or an Edgar Allen Poe writing the "Raven" on a drunken night with nothing to eat, and published as an afterthought by his Editor, or a Johann Sebastian Bach composing his immortal "Goldberg variations" to put a Russian count suffering from insomnia to sleep - which today stands as one of the most challenging pieces of piano music ever composed. The Russian ambassador to Germany requested Bach to write a piece of music for his accompanying pianist Goldberg to play. Goldberg was the Count's musician and companion who traveled with him on his extensive journeys. His duty was to make himself available in an adjoining room, when the count took his periodic rest and entertain or sooth his capricious moods. History has it that Bach was not very happy writing this music, but he needed the Count's blessings and patronage, so he forced himself to produce something that met its purpose. However, what he did not realize was the fact that 30 or 32 variations he wrote for the  Harpsichord were not only supremely challenging technically speaking, but capable of being interpreted in numerous ways  and aesthetically, one of the most satisfying compositions ever. Since it was Goldberg who first played them, it came to be known and recognized as "Goldberg variations" - an unlikely fame for an otherwise ordinary court musician.

Over the last hundred years, It has been the dream of every accomplished pianist to interpret and play the Goldberg variations, at least once in their life time. Very few have actually achieved that summit with glory and fame , and even fewer have explored its nuances and done justice to its musical intricacies. For a long time, I have been searching for a Vinyl record of Glenn Gould's rendition of those variations. The name Glen Gould needs no introduction to Piano enthusiasts. He was one of those maverick geniuses who walked the stage of life,  every now and then. Eccentric, gifted, unconventional and extremely articulate - he recorded the "Goldberg variations" for the first time at a very young age in 1955. I say first time because, Gould has played and recorded them multiple times. He believed the Goldberg variations to contain a mystical charm which never ceased to amaze. I listened to his 1955  recording on Spotify few  years ago, and immediately fell in love with it. Since then, I have listened to many other versions of Goldberg variations, but somehow, this particular recording stands fresh and unique in my memory. There is something about the way Gould strokes the piano keys, the energy and verve his brings to its tonal quality and the sudden stillness it generates in between -  that captivates every time I listen to it.

A few days, I was driving past a Goodwill, when out of sudden impulse I turned towards it. It is not a store I have visited before. It looked small and a little run down as well. Nevertheless, a sense of  destiny ( strong word!!!) pulled me irresistibly. As I walked down the narrow aisle where Music was stacked, I saw two Vinyl's leaning against the shelf. I had almost walked past it, when the familiar intense face of Gould on the record cover caught the corner of my eye . I stopped, and picked it to see what it was. It was indeed Gould's 1955 recording of  Goldberg variations. The record itself was a 1972 reissue, but is in pristine condition. Price  - .77 cents + .05 cents tax.

If you care to glance Wikipedia's list of recordings of Goldberg variations, you will notice around 100 names over the last century or so, but if you look closely, Gould's name will appear four times in that list. He loved that piece so much. Though critics rate his 1955 recording as the finest, he was not very happy about it. He felt his tempo to be too fast for Bach's notes, and in later recordings one could audibly feel a slowing down in his performance. But for me, I love the first. After reaching the fifteenth variation, Bach gently changes his melody. In a casual listener, It is difficult to notice that subtle change, but if you alert enough - around the 28th he slowly weans back to merge imperceptibly - like two rivers merging into an ocean-   with his first variation. I have listened to at least twenty different recordings, but in none of is the transition so crystal clear as it is when it emanates from Gould's nimble fingers.

The vinyl preserves that genius for posterity.

God bless..

Yours in mortality,

Bala






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