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.