About this Recording
8.573921 - BACH, J.S.: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (Rübsam)
English  German 

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988


The so-called Goldberg Variations were first published in 1741, at Johann Sebastian Bach’s expense, by Balthasar Schmid of Nuremberg. The edition was entitled Clavier Übung bestehend in einer Aria mit verschiedenen Verænderungen vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen. Deren Liebhabern zur Gemüths-Ergetzung verfertiget (‘Keyboard exercise, comprising an aria with diverse variations for double manual harpsichord. Composed for connoisseurs, to delight their spirits’). An account that goes back to the monograph on Bach published in 1802 by Johann Nikolaus Forkel, organist, admirer of Bach and one of the founders of musicology as a discipline, suggests that the work was written for Count Keyserlingk, a diplomat friend of the Bach family, whose harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, had to play them for him, especially when he was having a sleepless night. On closer investigation, however, the mere fact that Goldberg can only have been about 13 years old when the work was published suggests that this anecdote is not true.

Regardless of whether this contextual detail is correct or not, the musical importance of the work as the culmination of Baroque variation technique is beyond question. The individual variations are arranged according to a premeditated musical structure. Disregarding the Aria which frames the entire composition, the work is divided into two main parts, each of which comprises 15 pieces, subdivided into five groups of three. Each of the ten sets of three contains two free variations followed by a canon or, in Variation 30, a quodlibet, and the interval of the canons ascends steadily, from unison to a ninth. Overall, the variations hardly ever take the melody of the Aria as their point of departure; instead, they are almost exclusively based on the 32-bar bass line. The number of bars, in turn, reflects the total number of sections: 32.

Bach bases some of the variations on familiar Baroque forms. Alongside a fughetta and sections that resemble the dances characteristic of the Baroque suite, such as the polonaise, passepied, sarabande, minuet, corrente and gigue, or the French overture that opens the second part, there are virtuosic showpieces or essercizi reminiscent of those by Domenico Scarlatti, with hand crossing, and other highly expressive, consummate minor-mode variations that call to mind the empfindsamer Stil (or style galant) that was then emerging. The Quodlibet, which effectively takes the place of the canon at the tenth, superimposes various well-known contemporary melodies one on top of the other and is clearly intended to reflect a Bach family tradition of improvising such pieces extempore at family gatherings for the amusement of the assembled company.

In summary, Bach’s work is a unique combination of German, French and Italian traditions and vocal and instrumental forms of ensemble music.

The work therefore requires the player to be conversant with a huge variety of musical styles and approaches, as well as demanding a correspondingly high level of virtuosity. The market has become littered with a plethora of recordings on a whole range of keyboard instruments. There are even many arrangements for small ensembles. The tempi the various performers choose offer a particularly clear reflection of the wide range of interpretations. The two recordings by Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, in particular, influenced ideas about the speed at which the piece should be played particularly strongly, giving rise to occasionally ludicrous hype around the tempo.

The pieces Gould sometimes played prestissimo seem diametrically opposed to Bach’s conception of ‘cantabile playing’, as does the fact that digesting this complex and extremely dense music requires a correspondingly generous amount of time, as prominent musicians from Albert Schweitzer to Sergiu Celibidache repeatedly cautioned when discussing performances reflecting the spirit of the age in seemingly attempting to break the speed record.

Wolfgang Rübsam’s account should not, therefore, be regarded as just one more among many. Rather, in many respects, it does something fundamentally new. His is an almost pioneering attempt to make this complex music more transparent and easy to understand, while constantly surprising the listener with arpeggiated, ‘lute-like’ playing. Rübsam varies the repeats in accordance with contemporary practice. His use of the lute-harpsichord built to period specifications by Keith Hill is a special highlight. Its gut strings produce a soft but resonant tone which greatly assists the cantabile delivery mentioned earlier. The fact that Bach himself is documented as having owned at least two of these instruments (which unfortunately have not survived) gives the whole enterprise added legitimacy.

This new performance of the Goldberg Variations is, therefore, well placed to become a milestone in the long recording history of this important and unusual composition penned by the genius Johann Sebastian Bach. Even those who think they know the piece well will find that Wolfgang Rübsam’s account illuminates facets of it that they did not know existed.

Christian von Blohn
Translation: Susan Baxter

The Lute-Harpsichord

The lute-harpsichord (or Lautenwerk) used in this recording has only one manual, with one set of gut strings and two sets of jacks to pluck the same 8’ set of gut strings in two different places: one, positioned farther from the nut, for producing a flutey, hooty sound and the other, closer to the nut, for a more nasal timbre. This lute-harpsichord also has a brass 4’ set of strings that are there purely for the sympathetic vibration, similar to the effect heard on a Viola d’amore. That set of 4’ brass strings adds the aliquot ‘halo’ effect because it causes the rather dry sound of the gut strings to have much more of a singing quality. Thus, one might be tempted to call this lute-harpsichord a ‘Lautenwerk d’amore’. For this recording, which is all about the cantabile style of playing, having a more singing quality of sound is advantageous. Of all the lute-harpsichord I have built, this one is by far the most satisfying because of its simplicity of construction and the magnificence of its tone.

Keith Hill
Instrument maker

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