Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Goldberg Variations

The onset of cold weather truly does have me down, because I know that the present spell of cold weather is just a harbinger of what we will have to face for the next four months.

For the first time in my life, I can understand why people hunger for a warm place like Florida in the winter.

Andrew knew what to do, however, to get me out of my doldrums: a toasty apartment, lots of warm food and some Bach. And Andrew’s prescription was perfect. We cooked food tonight that made our apartment practically tropical, and we listened to Bach while we cooked.

We started things off with chicken noodle soup from a package—Sicilian chicken noodle soup from an Alessi mix, which actually is quite good—and then we truly got to work.

We cooked macaroni on the stove, and we boiled chicken in herbs on the stove, and Andrew made homemade stewed tomatoes on the stove (with green peppers, onions and dill). When the macaroni was done, we prepared a very sharp version of macaroni-and-cheese and put that into the oven to bake. Then we cooked butternut squash on the stove, in butter and spices, and we steamed lima beans. Before we knew it, the apartment was so warm that I finally warmed up for the first time since this morning’s commute. By the time the food was ready, I was fine, and we had a lovely dinner. I told Andrew that I wanted to have the same foods for dinner Friday night, when we will have his parents over for dinner in order to do gift-planning for Christmas. He said that was fine with him.

A couple of hours after dinner, we heated up the oven again and made some gingerbread, which we are going to eat before we go to bed. It has been a lovely evening.

The Bach we have listened to all night has been Gustav Leonhardt’s 1953 recording of the Goldberg Variations on the Vanguard Classics label. We listened to it four times.

This is the earliest of three recordings of the Goldberg Variations that Leonhardt has made, and it has a freshness and directness that are very appealing. It is the Goldberg of a young man, and I think this performance holds up very well. The sound is amazing for a mono recording from 1953. No allowances in the least need be made for the quality of the recorded sound.

The harpsichord in use does not have a pleasant sound—it sounds tinny and scratchy. The quality of the harpsichord sound soon becomes irrelevant, however, because harpsichords have no dynamic range and because the particular harpsichord in use on this recording has virtually no coloristic possibilities. Perversely, this limitation makes it easier to focus purely on the music and the quality of Bach’s invention.

For me, Bach is unassailable. No other composer’s music is so perfect, so logical, so expressive, so profound, with so wide a range of emotion. I could listen to Bach, and nothing but Bach, and be perfectly content.

The 1953 Vanguard recording is famous because it was one of the first recordings that signaled the arrival of the original-performance-practice movement that arose shortly after World War II. Many scholars consider Leonhardt’s 1953 Goldberg Variations to be the first “authentic” recording of this great work.

I would not want to give up hearing the Goldberg Variations played on the piano, and I would not want to give up hearing the Goldberg Variations played in a more “personalized”, even Romantic, way. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the Leonhardt performance very much, and I can understand why this recording is still in print over half a century after its initial release.

I think we will have to keep this disc in the player for the rest of the week.


  1. You don't know me, but I sometimes post on Andrew's blog on matters musical.

    That Goldberg is the worst Goldberg I have ever heard. It is the most boring Goldberg on CD. Why is this performance still in the catalog? And, yes, the sound is quite good for its age. And, yes, the haprsichord sounds God-awful.

    I hate that performance.


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  3. Hmm...that smells great!

    Your vivid and aromatic description whets my appetite, you have no idea.

    I only ate porridge last night.

    At least, in Chicago, the sun's out. Warm and bright. That's at least one thing to be thankful for.


  4. Hey, J.R.

    Well, I hope you REALLY didn't eat porridge last night.

    All the stuff we had boiling on the stove at least warmed up our apartment! And the dinner WAS nice.

    There is no sun here. It is overcast, and snowing. It is supposed to snow one inch this afternoon, and then continue snowing tonight. At least it is warmer than yesterday. It is now 22 degrees.

    Keep warm, and enjoy your sun. We are supposed to see some sun in June, if we're lucky.


  5. Dan, I am no expert on different recordings of the Goldberg Variations and, in general, I think I can say that, all things considered, I prefer to hear it on the piano rather than on the harpsichord. However, I enjoyed listening to the Leonhardt recording very much. In my case, it was the right music for the right time. Josh