This article is the fourth article of a four part series on the Goldberg Variations in which house writer Phoebus Kyriakoudis discusses different interpretations of the work
Ending my series of articles on the Goldberg variations, I wanted to expand my knowledge of the recording history of this piece with versions arranged for different instruments or combinations of instruments. However, when I came across the 2008 album made by Denis Patkovic on the accordion, I was immediately hooked by its originality and its freshness. Patkovic’s instrument and the way he plays it both contribute to a strikingly unique soundscape for Bach’s piece, which is further highlighted by Jukka Tiensuu’s piece Erz, a set of short complementary pieces mixed in with the variations that offer modern comments on Bach’s music, at once deconstructing his music and recomposing its dramatic trajectory. Throughout this recording, there is a constant desire to bring about a new aspect of Bach’s work, which is inevitably what gives it its invigorating, refreshing quality that draws your attention for hours on end.
All sorts of culturally incongruous images pop to mind when hearing the accordion’s sound, ranging from Medieval street musicians to “Amelie”. Not only are they seen at play in this recording, they also provide a “clean slate” for us to listen to Bach’s music freed from the shadow of a Gould or Landowska’s genre-defining interpretation. Listen, for example, to how the accordion’s sound changes the 3rd variation from a graceful canon to a melancholic waltz tune echoing from the empty streets of Paris, or how the 7th variation sounds as if coming from some 14th-century Italian city jester. The instrument’s history carries with it some inescapable cultural references, which help us start to see Bach’s music from a different eye, thus also influencing how we hear Patkovic’s interpretation.
In terms of the Goldberg variations, Patkovic’s playing shows a remarkable aptitude for carefully sculpted phrases, advocating a clearly laid out vision for how the piece should sound throughout (Listen to the 1st variation’s attention to dynamics, for example). The accordion’s mechanism allows him to achieve a detached sound that works perfectly for variations such as the 8th, the 11th and the 23rd, while his voicing choices for the 1st, the 10th and the 16th almost remind us of Landowska’s efforts at creating a grandiose sound out of her instrument, successfully conjuring the illusion of an orchestra playing. Certain choices he makes, such as the staggered rhythmic pulse of the 19th variation or the impressively slow tempo for the 13th, admittedly sound out of place in the grand scheme of things; they seem to work, however, in the context of Tiensuu’s compositions, to which we shall turn to now.
Tiensuu’s work Erz is written as a running commentary on Bach’s work, here in its arranged form for the accordion. Throughout the variations, we hear short, prelude-like pieces in a deconstructed harmonic space, which provide a musical space for reflection or debate with Bach’s music and usually move around the main key of the piece, G major. Many of these pieces lead in seamlessly to the ensuing variation- listen, for example, to the way the third piece, “Desire”, prepares the starting note B of the 9th variation close to the end. Others, however, sound as if detached from their immediate surroundings, such as “Debate” and “Effort”. The characters range from jaunty, agitated, even volatile (“Trick”, “Whim”, “Twister”) to mysterious, misty or absurd (“Breeze”, “Swell”, “Effort”). Listen in particular to how the 14th variation leads into “Swell”; a single held G note gradually dies down to transform from Bach’s brilliance to Tiensuu’s murky, uncertain soundscape, ultimately giving way to Bach’s delicately fragile minor-key 15th variation. The dramatic narrative created here by Tiensuu’s additions is fascinating, forming bridges of musical activity that reveal hidden aspects of the piece’s trajectory and add layers of meaning to the overall musical structure.
One can observe a tendency in some of these pieces of decomposing, or rather, “composing”, Bach’s music; Take the second piece, “Heat”, for example. The opening forms around the interplay between Bb and B natural, contextualized from the beginning in the greater tonal area of G. It is almost as if the piece is trying to reconcile with its diatonic heritage, being written in direct response to Bach’s work but somehow battling to acknowledge and accept that responsibility. The piece then gradually dies out, eventually segueing directly to the 6th variation, and thus we are back into position. A similar journey can be observed in the 8th piece, “Zeal”, which again seems to circle around G and its related pitches in bare octaves and short bursts of energy before leading us to the 18th variation. It is easy to think of these pieces as illustrating some beginnings of the creative process taking place inside the composer’s mind; I was immediately reminded of Tavener’s Mandoodles for piano (1982), which sound like a composer’s mindless waffling on the piano before inspiration hits, ending with a quotation of Chopin’s 7th prelude in A major from his Op. 28. Similarly, Tiensuu provides a sort of backstage commentary on Bach’s supposed internal processes leading up to the composition- and simultaneous performance- of the variations. In addition, he makes use of the work’s topography to propose his own dramatic reading of the piece, taking advantage of moments in the piece to enhance and transform it from within.
In conclusion, this is an interesting experiment of reimagining Bach’s music on a multitude of levels, which for me works in so many ways. Not only are we freed from the shackles of legendary recordings on the harpsichord and the piano, but we also get to enjoy a thought-out performance from Patkovic and a meaningful essay on Bach’s music by Tiensuu at the same time. This recording is, to me, an important effort of recent years to redefine our approach to Bach, and one that certainly has more to give us should we embrace it warmly and fearlessly; let’s just say that quarantine got a little more interesting now that I know of its existence.
Phoebus Kyriakoudis, January 2021
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