Tuesday, April 22, 2008

David Shemer's performance of the Goldberg Variations

J.S.Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” …where does one begin? Perhaps by discounting many of the stories attached to this monumental work. Goldberg, Bach’s pupil and assistant, was aged 13 at the time and who knows if he, brilliant as he was, could have performed it. It was published in 1741. The work had been commissioned by Count Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador to the Dresden court and a great music-lover. The title page, however, does not mention the Count, and Bach, in all humility, calls the work “Keyboard Practice”.

Dr David Shemer first began working on the Goldberg Variations in 2002 on his acquiring the double-manual Skowroneck harpsichord; the Goldberg Variations call for a double-manual instrument. German harpsichord- builder Martin Skowroneck, now 80, is authentic in his approach: the plectra, for example, are made of seagull feathers! Shemer played from a facsimile of the 1741 edition, with the addition of a few comments of Bach’s which Shemer himself had penciled in, according to an edition found much later, nowadays referred to as “the composer’s copy”. And, on the subject of authenticity, the harpsichord was tuned a tone down from modern pitch, give it a somber, warm quality.

The work opens with an Aria - in effect, a dignified Sarabande movement of 32 bars and a fixed harmonic pattern, highly embellished in the French manner –this is the subject of the 30 variations. Shemer begins it thoughtfully, giving it time to breathe. Then the variations follow in groups of three, each third being a canon. The work takes us through the gamut of Bach’s ideas, emotions and musical forms, beginning with the exuberance of the first variation. The second variation is a three-part Invention. In Variation 5, Bach has the hands crossing in large leaps. Variation 7 is an elegant two-voiced French Gigue, dotted and charming, Variation 19 is in the style of an elegant Passepied. Shemer presents the very many moods and contrasts challenging performer and listener – those of major versus minor, heavy textures versus few strands, dramatic moments, tranquility, intimate moments, virtuosity and simplicity. The technical demands and “acrobatics”, the fantasy and surprises, the differences and complexities of certain of the variations never fail to blow the listener away and seem to be aimed only at the most fearless and adventurous of harpsichordists. The last movement, a quodliblet boasting modesty and constructed of folksongs brings us back to basics and it always surprises me; for in variation 29, was not all hell loose?

And all the above can not describe the actual experience of hearing a player of the caliber of Shemer perform the work in full (and on a fine harpsichord.) The Goldberg Variations are a personal journey and surely a lifelong assignment; indeed, it was a privilege and moving experience for the audience to be a part of this process. This recital is surely a highlight of this year’s concert season.

J.S. Bach - Goldberg Variations
David Shemer-harpsichord
St Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem
April 17, 2008

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