On my music player at the moment is Catrin Finch’s recent release of her transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for harp. I already had different versions of these variations on a single theme along with Bach’s other keyboard works, mostly written as studies in counterpoint but now generally regarded as worthy of performance in their own right. So why would I buy another? Apart from the fact that Catrin Finch was brought up in the same village I used to live in, I was curious as to how this music would sound on the harp. Originally written with the harpsichord in mind, the keyboard pieces are generally performed today on piano, though The Art of the Fugue, with no instrument specified, also has a good modern representation for string quartet.
As well as being played straight, the pieces are often transcribed as with the renditions by Glenn Gould, hailed by some as brilliant and by others as eccentric. I have Gould’s Goldberg as well as his recordings of other pieces, my favourite being the Two- and Three-part Inventions, in spite of the fact that you can hear him humming along and speaking to the piano as he plays! Finch follows Gould in transcribing the Goldberg Variations for her instrument, allowing her to adapt performance to suit its peculiarities. This works well for some variations and less well for others. Have a listen to the Aria (You-Tube clip above) for sample of her playing.
So I’m glad to have added this to the range of Bach renditions in my collection. It remains to be seen how often it will return to my music player once I’ve adapted to the novelty of it. Those performances that do are the ones that, over time, seem to lead to greater depths of engagement with this very deep music. I listen to them for the way they unravel a complexity that never fully resolves itself. I once wrote:
The extraordinary run of a line
Through a Bach fugue
Keeping time in order
To keep an ordered time.
(more of this poem
That they reach real depths that are hard to explain is a view shared by those who have much more musical knowledge than I. Glenn Gould said:
It is, in short, music which observes neither end nor beginning, music with neither real climax nor real resolution, music which, has unity through intuitive perception, unity born of craft and scrutiny, mellowed by mastery achieved, and revealed to us here, as so rarely in art, in the vision of subconscious design exulting upon a pinnacle of potency.
(original liner notes to his Goldberg Variations LP)
That’s a view I had formed for myself before reading those liner notes. Few other musical pieces get anywhere near this exploration of the music of the spheres, though some of Schubert’s piano works have a similar atmosphere of depth and engagement. These are grand claims and certainly not all artists realise them in their performances. Instant judgements are not useful in this respect, so I’ll wait on time to know if Finch’s journey from the opening aria to its restatement at the end gets anywhere near the best. For now - it's growing on me!