In preparation for attending my first hearing of Bach’s Goldberg Variations BWV 988 I purchased “Reinventing Bach” a book by Paul Elie. One anecdote in this scholarly tome caught my attention immediately, primarily because the scene occurred only 15 miles from where this monumental work was to be performed at Sunset Concerts at Saint Luke’s in Los Gatos on May 3. Elie told of “a young man who had an acid trip that centered on the music of Bach and a wheat field.” The man was a young computer enthusiast by the name of Steve Jobs, the place was Sunnyvale California and the music was Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”
As I sat in Saint Luke’s church last Friday evening mesmerized by renowned artist Anne-Marie McDermott’s performance, I considered how more than two centuries after its composition and half a planet away this piece continues to speak to present day audiences. The church was full to capacity for this much-anticipated program. Performing throughout the world as a soloist, in chamber groups and with leading orchestras, McDermott has played music by composers from Beethoven to Wourinen, and her recordings of Gershwin, Chopin, Prokofiev and Bach illustrate the diversity of her musical interest. Her program, the finale of this season’s Sunset Concerts at Saint Luke’s, was to feature Prokofiev’s Sixth Piano Sonata alongside the Goldberg Variations and I wondered at the stamina anyone would need for a performance of these two monumental pieces back to back. Would these two works sit happily side by side on the concert platform?
Originally composed for a two-manual harpsichord the variations may be performed on one manual, as on the piano, but this adds to an already high level of technical complexity. The Yamaha piano used in the performance had a wonderfully warm tone, with a sonorous bass. The sound it produced was certainly not the sound what Bach had in mind when he conceived the work, but I’m sure he would have embraced the modern concert grand, since he was a pioneer on the front line of instrumental technology himself. The thirty-two variations on a bass line and chord progression range from Baroque dances, an aria, a French Overture, to virtuosic toccatas, and fugettas, all interspersed with a series of canons demonstrating Bach’s fascination with counterpoint and reach, what some consider, to be the supreme height of contrapuntal writing. Such a dazzling variety of genres demands that the performer shift gears instantantly from one style to another, and it soon became apparent that this is one of McDermott’s strengths. Her delight in fast tempi in the virtuosic passages was truly joyful as was her unfailing variety of touch and intelligence in the slower, more introspective sections. McDermott says she plays Bach every day: it nourishes her soul – and ours too in her outstanding rendition.
In the second half of the program we were ‘taken on a complete journey’ (McDermott’s description) and her special relationship to Prokofiev’s piano sonatas spanning forty years was magnificently portrayed in her performance of his Sixth Sonata. Just as Prokofiev uses the full range of the keyboard to its very extremes, so too, McDermott’s playing brought our emotions to a heightened intensity: visceral excitement, manic wit, abstruse sarcasm and gentle, but always intense, moments of repose held the audience enraptured on the edge of their seats. She told the audience that this is one of her favorite Prokofiev pieces and this was obvious in every note of her performance, which gained her an immediate standing ovation.
McDermott showed she had strength and endurance in reserve when she selected a Liszt transcription of Schumann’s ‘Widmung’ for her encore. This piece has its own technical gymnastics but the subtle voicing of Schumann’s delicate melody is what remained with me at the end of the evening.
And yes, most assuredly, Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata can not only stand together, but more importantly, complement each other – in the capable hands of a supreme artist.
Born and raised in England, Heather Morris received her Bachelor of Music degree in piano and clarinet from Sheffield University. She currently teaches piano, clarinet, theory and composition and writes classical music reviews for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. She is a member of ASCAP and has written orchestral, chamber and piano works. A member and evaluator for the Music Teachers’ Association of California and the National Guild Heather is also a member of Piano Renaissance, a performance group based in the East Bay.