Wigmore Mondays – Lars Vogt plays the Bach Goldberg Variations


Lars Vogt (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 6 June 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)


Available until 4 July

What’s the music?

J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (1742) (55 minutes)


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, Lars Vogt has recorded the Goldberg Variations which can be heard here:

About the music

The Goldberg Variations have an intriguing genesis. The generally accepted account is that they were written by Bach for performance by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who needed something to play to pass the time when his master, Count Keyserlingk – the Russian ambassador to the court of Dresden – was unable to sleep.

Bach wrote the variations for him and published them in 1742, though their lack of a dedication coupled with a few other factors have led some to doubt their authenticity as a work for Goldberg.

That is a minor aside, though, for the Goldberg Variations are one of the pinnacles in keyboard music. Lasting almost an hour, they are a huge set of variations on an Aria, which is a three-minute, self-contained unit in itself. Throughout the duration Bach reaches profound emotional depths, especially in the minor key variations, while in the more exuberant fast music he explores complex but extremely positive music. They are a tour de force for any keyboard player, and are perhaps the work by which the legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould is best remembered.

Performance verdict

Lars Vogt clearly has a great deal of admiration and affection for this music, for this was a spellbinding performance of one of the great cornerstones of the keyboard repertoire. The Goldbergs make great demands on the versatility of an artist, exposing any limitations in their technique – but where Vogt was concerned, there did not appear to be any.

It was helpful that he paused after some of the bigger variations, allowing Bach’s revelations in the minor key in particular to sink in. Others he linked very closely together, so that there was a natural ebb and flow between the fast music and the slow.

This was an incredibly assured performance, after which Vogt simply raised the music itself to the audience – a gesture that spoke volumes for the stature in which the work continues to be held.

What should I listen out for?

1:23 – the Aria, which is a slow Sarabande. It is heavily ornamented – by which it is meant the right hand of the piano decorates its melodies. Yet there is a sense of time standing still as Bach announces the main theme for his variations.

5:02 – Vogt moves straight into the lively Variation 1, where Bach builds up a fluid momentum.

5:54 – the bright Variation 2, a little quieter and beautifully poised with discussion of the melodies between both hands (or ‘counterpoint’ as it is commonly known!)

6:41 – Variation 3, a Canon – where one part shadows the other throughout. Again Bach gives this a totally natural appearance, in a lilting triple time.

8:32 – the more rigid Variation 4.

9:34 – the quickfire Variation 5, with a rapid figuration of semiquavers as the music hurtles forwards.

10:17 – Variation 6, the second Canon in the variations and one that explores some advanced harmonic movements.

11:28 – a detached profile to the melody of Variation 7, with a detached and staccato nature that gives it a French flavour.

12:14 – the busy eighth variation brings the two hands close together on the keyboard, and streams forward, leading straight into…

13:08 – the ninth variation, a slower, poised affair, and the third of Bach’s Canons.

14:43 – Variation 10, a ‘fughetta’ – by which you can hear each part entering individually with Bach’s new theme. The counterpoint builds in a compact statement.

15:28 – Variation 11 is quicker, and tricky to execute.

16:24 – Variation 12, and Bach’s fourth canon, is a stately and expansive affair.

19:24 – Variation 13 is a Sarabande, the first to fully evoke the spirit of the Aria and to behave in a similar, decorated way.

21:38 – the reverie is burst by Variation 14, a brisk affair that has some striking, jumpy rhythms in the right hand. Legendary pianist Glenn Gould compared this variation to Scarlatti.

22:38 – Variation 15, the fifth canon. It has some adventurous chord progressions, moving mysteriously through the minor key as it becomes progressively more anguished. Gould says this would not be out of place in Bach’s St Matthew Passion, as a genuine piece of mourning. A period of silence at the end only heightens the impact.

26:18 – the flavour of a French Ouverture runs through Variation 16, which has a ceremonial air, with some florid statements from both hands. It opens out into a faster section.

28:57 – a virtuosic Variation 17

29:56 – the dance returns for Variation 18, which is another canon, the parts dancing in a calculated but surprisingly breezy near-unison.

31:19 – Variation 19, and Bach still as prodigiously inventive as he was at the beginning. This is a relatively gentle, triple time dance.

31:58 – Variation 20 quickens the pace again, with quick interaction between the hands.

32:58 – for the seventh canon, Variation 21, Bach moves back to the minor key and a solemn exchange of melodies.

35:23 – back to the major key for 22, where Bach often fills out the texture to four parts.

36:05 – a bright Variation 23, where the hands are higher up the keyboard, exchanging some florid ideas.

36:59 – another canon, the eighth, for Variation 24, a triple time dance with an attractive lilt.

39:47 – the third and last minor key variation, 25, is a darker turn after the positivity of the previous one. It is also a lot slower, with time seemingly coming to a halt towards the end of Bach’s discourse. Because of its emotional impact it has been described as ‘the black pearl’ of the set.

43:23 – after the depths of the minor key, Variation 26 sounds like a frivolous thought, with a burbling idea exchanged between the two hands.

44:27 – Variation 27, a little stern in its set canon but with a strong air of positivity.

46:29 – Variation 28 is higher up the keyboard, with repeated figures that Bach moves around a harmonic sequence. There is a lot of hand crossing for the pianist here.

48:13 – in Variation 29 the tempo is still quick and the hands stay close together, though the right one does run off alone at times.

50:16 – Variation 30, the last one, is given the title of Quodlibet, a kind of improvised work. Here Bach really lets his invention go, using the melodies of a couple of folksongs as he strays far from the original.

52:01 – a note for note repeat for the Aria from the start, closing the entire Goldberg Variations.

Further listening

Rather than another set of variations, the recommended further listening is for a set of shorter Bach pieces played on the piano. These can be heard in a stylish album from Alexandre Tharaud, who has incidentally also recorded the Goldberg Variations. Here he focuses on some of Bach’s works with an Italian flavour, including the Italian Concerto among others:

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