B-W Bach Festival: Jory Vinikour—the Goldberg Variations (April 16)
by Timothy Robson
There wasn’t much to see on Saturday afternoon, April 16, at harpsichordist Jory Vinikour’s concert at the annual Baldwin-Wallace Bach Festival. With the barest nod of his head, the all-in-black-clad Mr. Vinikour acknowledged the audience’s applause, and then sat down to play from memory, non-stop almost ninety minutes of the greatest — and most difficult — counterpoint ever written, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Aria with Thirty Variations, the so-called “Goldberg Variations.” Mr. Vinikour’s performing presence was one of intense concentration. No weaving or bobbing to the music, his body was in quiet repose while his fingers did the work with utmost efficiency. The result was a performance of almost religious grandeur.
Bach wrote the variations for his student J.G. Goldberg, who was employed by an insomniac Russian ambassador to the Saxon court. The variations are based not on the melody of the Aria, but on the bass line. The aria is in two parts, each half repeated. Each of the variations follows the same format of two parts with repeats. Every third variation is a canon (in which voices follow each other strictly): the third variation is a canon at the unison; the sixth is a canon at the second; the 27th variation is a canon at the ninth. Interspersed between the canons are variations in other forms, some free, some in familiar Baroque styles. For example, the sixteenth variation, at the center of the set, is a French Ouverture, with the sharply dotted rhythms and brilliant ornamentation of the first part, followed by an Allegro fugal second half. Most of the variations are in the key of G major; a few are in G minor. The work requires a two-keyboard harpsichord; there are many hand-crossings and other virtuoso requirements.
Jory Vinikour is one of the leading harpsichordists of our day; he performs regularly in all the best venues and accompanies leading vocal and instrumental soloists and notable opera companies. In 2009 and 2010 his two recorded performances of Bach flute sonatas with Cleveland Orchestra principal flutist Joshua Smith received wide acclaim. For this B-W concert he played a handsome 1960s-vintage harpsichord by the legendary Boston builder William Dowd, rebuilt in 2010 by Cleveland builder Philip Cucchiara. The case is plain stained wood with a reddish finish. In Mr. Vinikour’s playing the instrument had a singing tone, flexibly adapting to a wide variety of articulations.
As I noted above, Mr. Vinikour’s playing was not flashy but was characterized by subtlety and refinement. His tempos were on the slow side; in the repeats he often added sensitive additional ornamentation. The rhythmic pulse was rock solid, but flexibly adapting to the music, stretching and contracting to the musical sense of the moment. We can forgive Mr. Vinikour a couple of minor memory slips toward the beginning of the performance; it seemed that later, the more difficult the variation, the more secure his playing became. Besides the French Ouverture variation, the highlight of this performance was Variation 25, an elaborate, highly ornamented aria of the utmost sophistication. Mr. Vinikour set apart his variation with pauses before and after. There was not a sound from the audience; people seemed spellbound. The ninety minute duration of the performance seemed much shorter for this listener; I did notice that the intended original purpose of the variations — to soothe one into sleep — had that effect on several in the audience. The gentleman in front of me was snoring, until another audience member poked him with the corner of the program booklet.
The Goldberg Variations ends as it began, with a repetition of the original aria upon which the variations are based. Mr. Vinikour’s playing seemed as fresh as when he began. At the end, he held the audience in silence for a few seconds before the richly deserved ovation began.
Mr. Vinikour has recorded the Goldberg Variations on the Delos label. Although the recording is now over ten years old, and Mr. Vinikour has undoubtedly changed some of his thoughts about performing the work, it can still be recommended without hesitation.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com April 19, 2011
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