Bach’s Universe in a Piano

Bach’s Goldberg Variations, performed by Hee-Kyung Juhn. At UCSB’s Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall, Friday, October 27.

Reviewed by James Hanley Donelan

Hee-Kyung-Juhn-web.jpgWhen Hee-Kyung Juhn walked onto the Lotte Lehmann stage in a silver-gray evening gown, she seemed almost too alone out there. A single performer, a single work, and a Steinway — could this be enough for an entire concert? The answer was a brilliant, thunderous “yes,” and an affirmation of the potential that a single pianist can unleash with a work that Bach, paradoxically, had written so that a harpsichordist could lull his employer to sleep. The story — that Bach wrote these 30 variations on a theme for Goldberg to help Count Kayserling’s insomnia — has never been established with certainty, but the Goldberg Variations’ place in music history is utterly without doubt. They are the Mount Everest of the theme and variation form, the most thorough and challenging exploration of counterpoint ever written. Juhn’s extraordinary performance on Friday brought out every clever idea, every witty phrase, and every astonishing harmony into a coherent vision of the awesome beauty of this work.

If the work itself is so miraculous, why play it on the piano rather than the harpsichord? Bach died more than a century before the invention of the iron-frame piano; its enormous dynamic range and rich sonority would have astounded him. To play a harpsichord work on a modern piano, as Juhn did, requires more than a sensitive touch — it requires a deep and nuanced understanding of the way Bach wove each contrapuntal line. Juhn gave us glittering runs on the higher keys as her left hand led a trudging descent in the bass.From there, she built cathedrals of sound as a simple melody, bit by bit, formed itself into the dances, hymns, sonatas, trios, and inventions that make up this enormous piece.

As the time (almost an hour and a half) flew by, the world of Bach’s Goldberg Variations became more familiar, leading to a “quodlibet” — a juxtaposition of several melodies — just before the final restatement of the aria that began the whole work. Hearing it again was like greeting an old friend after a long trip — the intensity of the experience makes it all hard to explain. By then, we as an audience felt at home in this world of rich sound, and we were reluctant to return to our own. But we had been transformed.

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