BACH 769

J. S. BACH (1685–1750)

BWV 988 – The Goldberg Variations

Performed by  George Malcolm

Harpsichord by  Thomas Goff

1: GOLDBERG VARIATIONS – Air & Variations 1–8 – time 17:44
Aria (Theme) / Var.1 / Var.2: Three–part Invention / Var.3: Canon at the Unison / Var. 4: Dance in 4–part counterpoint / Var.5 / Var.6: Canon at the Second / Var.7: Siciliano–Duet* / Var.8*

2: GOLDBERG VARIATIONS – Variations 9–15 – time 20:32
Var.9: Canon at the Third / Var.10: Fughetta / Var.11* / Var.12: Canon at the Fourth / Var.13* / Var.14* / Var.15: Canon at the Fifth in contrary motion

3: GOLDBERG VARIATIONS – Variations 16–23 – time 17:10
Var.16: Overture / Var.17* / Var.18: Canon at the Sixth / Var.19: Minuet or Passepied / Var.20* / Var.21: Canon at the Seventh / Var.22: Alla breve / Var.23*

4: GOLDBERG VARIATIONS – Variations 24–30 – time 22:53
Var.24: Canon at the Octave / Var.25: Aria in chromatic harmonies* / Var.26* / Var.27: Canon at the Ninth / Var.28* / Var.29* / Var.30: Quodlibet on a popular song / 1st Aria (reprise)

* These Variations specify two manuals

Total playing time 76:07

In addition to the duties required of his various positions at Court or for Church use, Bach clearly felt the need to summarize his art for posterity. His four part Clavier-Übung or Keyboard Exercise series which he pursued for ten years between 1731 and 1741 encompasses the major keyboard instruments of the day, and all known keyboard compositional styles. Part I, published 1731, consisted of the Six Partitas or German Suites for Harpsichord; Part II, 1735, the Italian Concerto and French Overture (BWV 971 and 831); Part III, 1739, Preludes on the Catechism Hymns for Organ; while Part IV, 1741, offered the set of Air with Variations BWV 988.

Bach's own title was simple: "Keyboard practice, consisting of an Aria with different Variations for the Harpsichord with two manuals. Prepared for the enjoyment of music lovers by Johann Sebastian Bach." The story that has given the name Goldberg Variations to this monumental work comes from Forkel's biography of Bach (1802). From Forkel we learn that Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a youth of 15 and a pupil of Bach, was employed by Count Kaiserling, the Russian Ambassador to the Saxon Court, as Court Harpsichordist. The Count was often sickly and enjoyed the distraction of music played to him on sleepless and pain-filled nights. The Variations were Bach's response to the Count's request for pieces of a "soft and somewhat lively character" to be written for the gifted young Goldberg. That the published copy does not bear any sort of dedication to the Count as would be expected, casts doubt on this story. However Forkel, normally reliable in such matters, continues that Bach was rewarded by the Count with "a golden goblet filled with 100 Louis d'or," so the story may be true, perhaps a manuscript copy, now lost, was presented to the Count with a personal dedication.

The pattern – typical of Bach that there should be a well-defined scheme – is as follows: The Aria on which the Variations are based, a Sarabande in Anna Magdalena's Notebook of 1725, begins and ends the work. The thirty Variations are grouped as ten sets of three, each group of three ending with a Canon. The work falls naturally into two parts, breaking at Variation 15.

Regarding this particular performance of the Goldberg Variations by George Malcolm on the Thomas Goff Harpsichord, it is interesting to note that the description of Bach at the harpsichord, by one of his biographers, could apply equally well to George Malcolm. 'He sits upright and relaxed, his body still while only his arms and fingers move, the concentration of the mind unbroken by flamboyancy and emotion.' George Malcolm is known for his highly varied use of different registration, particularly on Thomas Goff's harpsichords, which offer great tonal possibilities.

Thirty Variations on an Air... this is music which surely requires variety of registration, particularly if all the repeats are played, as they are here. And Mr. Malcolm's performance of the Goldbergs does not disappoint; not only does his infinite variety of registration maintain a constant interest, he also uses these possibilities to bring out many facets of the music not otherwise noticed.

Baroque Music Library