Bach’s Enduring Enigma – Goldberg Variations (Johann Sebastian Bach)
When the “Goldberg” Variations were published in 1741 as Book IV of the Clavier-Übung, it was simply as “an aria with different variations for harpsichord with two manuals.” The keyboard virtuoso and composer Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756) had his name attached to the work in 1802, when Johann Nikolaus Forkel published his groundbreaking biography of Bach.
According to Forkel (translations vary), “Count Keyserlingk, formerly Russian ambassador to Saxony, often visited Leipzig. Among his servants there was a talented young man, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg – a harpsichordist (Cembalist) who was a pupil of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and later of Johann Sebastian Bach himself. The count had been suffering from insomnia and ill health and Goldberg, who also lived there, had to stay in the room next door to soothe his master’s suffering with music. Once the count asked Bach to compose some keyboard pieces for Goldberg, pieces of mellowness and gaiety that would enliven his sleepless nights. Bach decided to write a set of variations, a form that prior to this, hadn’t interested him much. Nevertheless, in his masterly hands, an exemplary work of art had been born. The count was so delighted with it, he called them ‘my variations’. He would often say: ‘My dear Goldberg, play me one of my variations.’ Bach had probably never been so generously rewarded for his music. The count gave him a golden goblet with a hundred Louis d’Or!”
For close to 300 years Bach’s Goldberg Variations have awed performers as well as listeners, through an unparalleled combination of a dazzling variety of expression and breath-taking virtuosity with stupendous polyphonic mastery. No wonder then that other musicians than harpsichordists have wanted to make it their own – pianists, first and foremost, but also accordion players and guitarists, flautists and harpists.
Having performed and recorded much of the classical as well as the modern string trio repertoire, Trio Zimmermann began working on the Goldberg Variations several years ago, playing an existing arrangement. But in their own words, the three members – among the leading string players of our time – ‘soon became captivated by the original score and its innumerable beauties and details’. As a result they have jointly prepared a performing version which here receives its first recording. Playing an important part on this disc are also the Trio’s instruments – all by Antonio Stradivarius, and featured in close-up on the cover.