in: Reviews

November 18, 2014

Grunstein’s Goldbergs on Piano


Sarah Grunstein (file photo)

Sarah Grunstein (file photo)

It is always interesting for a harpsichordist to hear a fine pianist playing Bach’s harpsichord music – at least I have always found it fascinating to hear a performance that essentially transcribes the original work to a new medium (albeit not one that Bach knew). What made Sarah Grunstein’s presentation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 on Friday in Williams Hall of the New England Conservatory so compelling, was that it was given by a pianist who is not only (very) fluent on her chosen instrument, but also conversant with (and sympathetic to) the instruments of Bach’s own time and their particular syntax. Grunstein comes from Sydney and studied there with Nancy Salas, a legend to Australian keyboard students – our own “Wanda Landowska”, if you will. Nancy Salas was not only a devoted and intrepid presenter of contemporary piano music (from Bartok in the ‘40s and ‘50s to Stockhausen marathons in the 1970s), but she was also one of Australia’s pioneer harpsichordists. I know this from personal experience, as she was my own first harpsichord teacher, although Grunstein got to her some years before I did as one of Nancy’s finest piano students. Nancy Salas was fiercely intelligent, demanding, yet inspiring as a teacher and possessed of a remarkable and penetrating musicianship of her own. As Australia was physically distant from everything to do with the European musical tradition, she traveled: to Amsterdam to study with Gustav Leonhardt, to New York (Albert Fuller) and to New Haven, to work with Ralph Kirkpatrick: “the greatest teacher I ever met”, as she described him. The other thing that Nancy Salas possessed was a capacity for practical scholarship: though never pedantic she “knew her stuff”. She should be internationally famous, and she inspired many generations of Australian musicians. After Nancy Salas, Grunstein moved on to New York and Juilliard; I went to Vienna and became a harpsichordist, studying with Isolde Ahlgrimm.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations form the fourth and final volume of Bach’s encyclopedic series “Clavier-Übung”, or “Keyboard Practice” (in the sense of “medical practice”: the present state of doctoring, or by analogy: “the present state of keyboard playing”). Composed specifically for a two-manual harpsichord with the compass GG – d, the Goldbergs pose a unique challenge to harpsichordists: no other work by Bach exploits the specific use of both keyboards, often with the hands in very unusual juxtapositions in obedience to the contrapuntal demands that form the musical and intellectual bases of the work. On the modern piano the physical challenge of rendering two-manual music on a single keyboard is greater, the musical and intellectual challenges larger still. Two modern performers put the Goldbergs on the map in the 20th century: Wanda Landowska on the Pleyel harpsichord (1933 & 1945 recordings, plus the 1942 performance at Town Hall in New York) and the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1955 & 1982 recordings). All four of these recordings are highly idiosyncratic, and none of them really explores the sounds of Bach’s own time, or the syntax of his own compositional language, great as each of them is in its own way. They represent Bach’s thought, re-interpreted in another language entirely.

Grunstein rendered Bach’s own vernacular effectively in terms of what the modern piano has to offer, by way of a secure knowledge of (and appreciation for) what only the harpsichord can do. As a harpsichordist (by coincidence currently preparing the Goldbergs for recording later this year), I was struck by the sheer dynamic flexibility and generosity of the piano. I also marveled at just how effectively it can sustain lines—for a very long time, if need be. With all these resources under her control, what occurred to me about Grunstein’s playing specifically was the care and detail with which she had worked out all of Bach’s contrapuntal intricacies; in the canons (every third variation) the mirroring of the imitating voices was crystal clear, even where Bach turns the “answer” upside down, thereby disguising it. The sheer expressivity of the minor key variations (nos. 15, 21 & 25) was almost overwhelming. The performance of variation 25 , the third and last in G minor, and “the supreme pearl of this necklace—the black pearl,” according to Landowska, added to the clear understanding of the various Baroque dance and other instrumental genres from which these variations spring.

Finally, as a harpsichordist who is spoiled by playing instruments with two keyboards, I was especially impressed by, not just the dexterity required (and exhibited) in physically negotiating the two-manual variations, but especially by the almost uncanny delineation of each line with its own distinct “color.” If true dynamics are an “illusion” on the harpsichord, created by tricks of rhythm and timing, then it can be equally well claimed that true color differentiation (as between two contrasting 8-foot registers on a two-manual harpsichord—one “fluty” the other nasal) is a test of the pianist’s art of dissembling. I was able to follow all the contrapuntal lines with perfect clarity (without a score). Many pianists restrict themselves to two basic articulations when playing Bach: undifferentiated legato (usually in slow movements) and a relentless staccato (often in fast passages where, ironically, each separation introduces an accent and slows things down). It was good to hear Grunstein adding 16’ octaves in the penultimate variation; the effect was somewhere between a pedal harpsichord and the organ (many of which in Bach’s time had a 32’ pedal stop to add a gravitas, so the odd 16’ octave would hardly have disturbed him).

Grunstein displayed a full and comprehensive range of articulation, dynamics and touch and created the illusion of several distinct colors occurring simultaneously—quite a collective feat, and one that reflects not only her first-hand knowledge of what a good harpsichord can do, but also a thorough practical acquaintance with the piano in all its stages of development from the 18th century through to the Steinway Model D on which she played. One final thing to note: Grunstein performed entirely from memory; this is of course customary for pianists, but rare for harpsichordists.

Peter Watchorn is an Australian harpsichordist, writer, teacher, harpsichord-designer and builder, who resides in Cambridge, MA. He is also a recording producer and the president and co-founder of Musica Omnia, Inc., an internationally famous classical CD label.


  1. A remarkably informative and inspiring review, for what I’m sure was an equally remarkable and inspiring performance. I know Sarah Grunstein’s playing from other occasions, and only wish I had been there to hear it in Boston. Maybe soon in New York?

    Comment by Styra Avins — November 19, 2014 at 4:57 pm

  2. What a remarkable artist, and superb reviewer. Have long been an admirer of Grunstein.

    Comment by Stephen Teichgraeber — November 20, 2014 at 2:40 pm

  3. Yes, indeed, it was very fine. But perhaps it should be mentioned (lest people wonder why they hadn’t seen any advertisements for the ‘concert’) that the performance was part of a weekly series of classes–Bruce Brubaker’s Piano Performance Seminar, featuring a variety of often stellar guests on Friday mornings from 10 to noon at the New England Conservatory. Some classes are masterclasses, some are lectures by visiting artists, composers, critics, musicologists, piano technicians, etc. Several classes have been interactive improvisation sessions. Ms. Grunstein preceded her performance with a generous 35-40 minutes of informative remarks about her work, about Bach, and specifically about the Goldberg Variations. After Ms. Grunstein’s performance she invited questions from the class and from non-class members of the audience. (The public is invited to attend this seminar; each class session is described in the weekly schedule on NEC’s website.) Past guests have included Virginia Eskin, Gabriel Chodos, Sergei Schepkin, Nico Muhly, Francisco Tristano, and a host of other luminaries. Tim Page is scheduled for some time in January, I believe; check NEC’s website in January.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — November 20, 2014 at 11:39 pm

  4. Some readers may misinterpret “… transcribes the original work to a new medium (albeit not one that Bach knew),” since there are reports that Bach in his last years got to know the state of pianos, such as it was, suggested changes, liked the new versions, brokered at least one sale and may have wished to become a dealer. Of course no one could see what this new design would become over the centuries.

    ‘State of practice’, or of the playing art, for -Übung is another nice take, although I would add that there is for the collection also the clear connotation of ‘Keyboard Workout.’

    Very sorry to have missed this event.

    Comment by David Moran — November 21, 2014 at 10:41 am

  5. Thanks to the commentators Alan & David: yes, I should have mentioned that this was part of Bruce Brubaker’s series, and that there was a 45 minute talk beforehand and questions afterwards. However, I deliberately limited myself to the suggested 1,000 word maximum for the review. Also, concerning my suggestion that Bach did not know the medium of the modern piano, this seems to me to be fair comment – he certainly was unfamiliar with the Steinway D and could hardly have anticipated its particular development (hence the modern pianist must “transcribe” the work from the – very different – medium for which it was created). One could also note further that, not only was Bach interested in the fortepianos by, for example, Gottfried Silbermann, he also offered suggestions for improvements (he found the touch heavy and the treble weak on the first one he played, it is reported) and ultimately (it appears) became Silbermann’s agent for them in Leipzig. Perhaps the 3-part Ricercar from The Musical Offering was written to demonstrate one (Frederick II of Prussia was reputed to have one in every room of his palace in Sans Souci), but it’s entirely different music from that found amongst the Goldberg Variations. I think that anyone who has heard or played a Silbermann (or good copy of one) would agree that, despite its ability to play soft and loud, it actually has far more in common with the harpsichords that Bach knew than it does with the present-day piano. My use of the word “transcribes” also pertains to the fact that the work was expressly designated by Bach for a two-manual harpsichord, and to attempt to play it on the single keyboard of a modern piano is a distinctly physical act of transcription – and there is nothing wrong with that! As I know well, the effect of playing two contrasting harpsichord registers on separate manuals against each other is very different from simulating that effect on the piano – and only great pianists manage to pull it off convincingly, as Ms. Grunstein surely did on Friday.

    Comment by Peter Watchorn — November 21, 2014 at 2:12 pm

  6. I confess that when I listen to the keyboard music of Bach forty-seven out of forty-eight times it is on the piano, but recently when the forty-eighth time comes up I have been listening to recordings of the English Suites and Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier by Peter Watchorn, which are grand, graceful, and often mesmerizing. I had no idea that he lives in the same city that I do. I look forward to listening to his other recordings, and hope fervently that they will eventually include the Goldberg Variations.

    Comment by SamW — November 21, 2014 at 5:40 pm

  7. Thanks, Sam. I will record the Goldbergs late spring, 2015. PW

    Comment by Peter Watchorn — November 21, 2014 at 7:47 pm

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