Harpsichord Notes

November 2, 2018

Recent recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Now universally known as the Goldberg Variations, Johann Sebastian Bach’s self-financed 1741 publication of his most extensive set of diverse variants on a simple theme bears this title on its cover: Keyboard Exercise Comprising an Aria and Differing Variations for a Two-Manual Harpsichord, composed for Amateurs by Johann Sebastian Bach, Composer at the Courts of Poland and of the Elector of Saxony, Chapel Master and Choir Master in Leipzig. Published in Nuremberg by Balthasar Schmid (translated from the original German).

Following the 1933 first recording of the complete masterwork by pioneering harpsichordist Wanda Landowska (a weighty 78 rpm recording project that has been reissued in every successive record format) the “Goldbergs” have been consigned to disc by a widely varied list of keyboardists, a tradition that continues, seemingly without any ritardandi. Indeed, while writing this report on recent compact disc releases, I have noted at least two more new recordings advertised for sale.

Just as I look at my extensive collection of books and think about the immense amounts of time and energy that are required for each publication (having been a writer all my adult life), I feel a similar empathy for the effort and dedication required when we consign our musical performances to disc (having done a fair number of these, as well). Thus, I try not to be overly critical in my reviews but rather hope that I may serve primarily as a reporter: one who gives enough information about the new offerings so that a reader may decide to seek more information, or even, perhaps, wish to acquire the item being discussed.

In alphabetical order, I present for your consideration three recent recordings of Bach’s magnum opus as performed by Diego Ares (born 1983) [Harmonia Mundi HMM 902283.84]; Wolfgang Rübsam (born 1946) [Naxos 8.573921]; and, as an archival reissue, a legacy from the renowned German organist and teacher, Helmut Walcha (1907–1991) [the last disc in a boxed set of thirteen compact discs comprising all of the major Bach solo harpsichord works, Warner Classics 0190295849618]. To make matters even more interesting, it so happens that I have had personal connections with each of these three keyboard artists.


Diego Ares

I met this brilliant harpsichordist in November 2009 and was blown away by his virtuoso performance of the Manuel de Falla Concerto for Harpsichord and Five Instruments at the opening event of the Wanda Landowska Exhibition organized by Martin Elste of the Musical Instrument Museum in Berlin, Germany. On my way to offer congratulations to the young artist, he met me halfway, as he wished to speak with me. At that time Diego was a student in Basel, and we both expressed our regrets that he had to return immediately to Switzerland for his semester end examinations, especially since we each had a special interest in contemporary harpsichord music.

We have, however, kept in touch since that brief encounter, and Diego has been generous in sending me his compact discs as they are produced. The immediate predecessor to his Goldberg Variations offering, his 2015 premiere recording of previously unknown Soler harpsichord sonatas (discovered in a manuscript now owned by the Morgan Library in New York City) won international acclaim, garnering both a Diapason d’Or and the German Record Critics’ first prize. I suspect that this latest two-disc set may well do the same.

In eloquent notes to the recording, Ares writes of his daily ritual that begins with a complete play through of the entire set of variations, but also he expresses his feeling for the need of a prelude to precede Bach’s opening statement of the Aria. For this recorded performance, Ares made a clever choice: Bach’s own transcription of an Adagio (BWV 968) based on the composer’s Violin Sonata (BWV 1005). It is indeed a lovely piece, but, since Bach left us only this one movement which cadences in the dominant key, it is a difficult work to program. As the desired prelude it makes a perfectly logical opener, connecting smoothly to the Aria in G Major.

Ares’s performance, with the added prelude, spans 1 hour, 29 minutes. He performs on his two-manual harpsichord by Joel Katzman (2002) based on a Taskin instrument from 1769.


Wolfgang Rübsam

Appointed to succeed the far-too-early-deceased James Tallis as harpsichord and organ professor at Southern Methodist University, I moved to Dallas, Texas, in late August 1970, to join the music faculty of the Meadows School of the Arts. Wolfgang Rübsam was, at that time, a stellar student in Robert T. Anderson’s organ class, and he went on to prove his stature by winning the first prize for interpretation at the 1973 Chartres organ competition. He also played a superb organ recital during the dedication year of SMU’s Fisk Opus 101 installation, and we continue to meet at various organ events throughout the United States.

Following a successful set of Bach recordings on the modern piano, Rübsam has turned his considerable musical insights to performing the Goldberg Variations on an instrument known to have been of interest to J. S. Bach: the lautenwerk or “lute harpsichord” of which a postmortem inventory of Bach’s belongings included two examples. Unfortunately, neither instrument is known to have survived the passage of time.

The proud owner of the fifth such instrument to be built by the highly respected American harpsichord maker Keith Hill, Rübsam provides a totally different sound picture for Bach’s variations. The constant arpeggiation certainly gives a different aura to the work, while the gentler plucked tones produced from this single-manual instrument soothe the ear. To record the entire work on one disc with a total timing of 78 minutes and 24 seconds, the artist confided that he made his own choices as to which of the variations would be played with the indicated repeats and which ones would not. I find his selections well made and actually agree totally that not all of the arbitrary double dots at the conclusion of each section need to be observed in any performance. I especially dislike the carbon-copy reruns of the B sections once one has made that trip from dominant cadencing back to the tonic. Most of the time one traversal is quite enough for my ears.

Amazing as it may seem to those of us who require two manuals as specified by the composer, Glenn Gould, Rübsam, and some other players seem quite able to negotiate the crossing of hands and notes, as well as the general awkwardness of compressing such acrobatics to one keyboard only. Bravo to all involved. 


Helmut Walcha

I first experienced a concert by the legendary professor of organ at the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst of Frankfurt, Germany, during the unforgettable summer trip that followed my year at the Salzburg Mozarteum as an Oberlin Conservatory junior (1958–1959). In Letters from Salzburg
(Skyline Publications, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 2006) I mentioned Walcha’s organ recital at the Frankfurt cathedral, with its eight-second reverberation, and noted that the organist was “an inspired player.” While visiting the Hochschule I met its harpsichord teacher, Frau Maria Jäger, and did not realize that Walcha was also a harpsichordist. 

During many summer trips to Europe in the earlier years of an academic career, my German friend and “European manager” Alfred Rosenberger and I often would attend Saturday Vespers at the Dreikönigskirche where Walcha was organist. There we could marvel at his expressive hymn playing and masterful improvisations, while also enjoying both the intimate beauty of the rather sparsely attended afternoon services as well as the post service opportunities to speak with the genial organ master.

Still there was no mention of the harpsichord; so, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the present thirteen-disc set comprising all the major solo harpsichord repertoire of J. S. Bach had been recorded starting in the spring of 1958 in Hamburg, continuing for the next several years, and culminated during March of 1961 with the 75 minutes and 38 seconds of Walcha’s interpretation of Goldberg Variations. And, for one further surprise, the recording engineer for all these sessions was none other than Hugo Distler’s brother-in-law, Erich Thienhaus! 

The two-manual harpsichord used for Walcha’s recording sessions was built at the Ammer Brothers factory located in Eisenberg in the eastern German province of Thuringia. What nostalgia that inspired! My first harpsichord teacher, Isolde Ahlgrimm, made her famous Bach recordings playing an Ammer instrument. My first harpsichord was a small double built at the Passau factory of Kurt Sperrhake, who also provided a larger two-manual model instrument during our Mozarteum year. (Ahlgrimm’s comment: “I’ve slept in smaller rooms than this instrument!”) While I would not want to return to these well-built, but heavy, leather-quilled factory instruments, there is a certain nostalgia for that youthful time of discoveries and the blooming of my first love for the harpsichord.

Would I recommend the Walcha recordings? Perhaps. It is remarkable that he could play absolutely perfectly since he had been struck blind at age nineteen, most likely from a reaction to his vaccination for smallpox. I do not hear any mistakes or smudged notes at all, but I also do not hear much in the way of personality or nuance either. It has somewhat the same effect as reading a dictionary—but as a source for checking the notes as they appear in the original Bach-Gesellschaft Editions there would likely be no deviations from that urtext.

And what a tribute to the human spirit! Every note required for thirteen compact discs full of music was retained in that brilliant memory! One of Walcha’s prize students, my SMU colleague Robert Anderson, told many tales of being summoned to visit his mentor for the purpose of following a score while his teacher played through the complete Art of the Fugue or some other complex set of organ pieces. And, said Bob, “There was hardly ever even one wrong note!”

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