Sarah Hagen: The Goldberg Variations

Tony Gregson


Mention of Bach’s Goldberg Variations usually wipes the smile off the faces of those who would like merely to relax. The 1741 first edition states that the Variations are “key board exercises . . .. Composed for connoisseurs . . .” As pianist Sara Hagen, pointed out to the audience at the Community Hall on Saturday, the Variations have a reputation for music that requires serious attention. For me, they evoke the iconic intensity of Glen Gould, hunched over the keyboard and singing to himself, as if possessed, followed by an insightful commentary in his disarmingly relaxed but precise manner. “Listen to the aria and see how it develops,” I overheard someone explain.

But Sara surprised me. First, she played a formidable piece by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a renowned child prodigy who studied with Bach himself. How the Variations got Goldberg’s name is debatable. Goldberg was employed by Count Herman Karl von Kayserling, an ailing aristocrat who commissioned the Variations from Bach to help deal with his insomnia, “like counting sheep”, and never tired of them (Goldberg, fourteen at the time in 1741, is thought to have been the first person to play them, presumably outside the Count’s bedroom if all this is true). Sara offered her own version, that Bach owed Goldberg money and offered to make him famous for all time by putting his name to the Variations because he was “baroque.” (Now there’s a Grumpism for you.)

Covid led Hagen to deeper engagement with the Variations. She’d had a very bad year with all performances cancelled. “All musicians knew right away from April 2020 this was going to be for the long haul.” A lot of colleagues turned right around and started streaming performances. Hagen tried a few, but found it wasn’t for her and made plans to focus on her repertoire. “Then, one night, a voice came to me, and it said, You are going to learn the Goldberg Variations. The next morning, I got up and thought, that is so strange because I don’t really want to. Every pianist has this and plays a few variations here and there and reads through them once a year, but I didn’t really think I would perform them until I was about eighty. Maybe,” she added,” Covid has aged me.”

She went about it in an unusual way. “I did start to learn them, but I decided to do it by not just going right to the piano and study the scores. I decided to listen to piles of recordings, and I would make a piece of artwork for each of the variations and try to understand the structure and form from that. If you work with visual art, you are always thinking about light and shadow . . . and I don’t think I would have realized it just sitting at the piano. I realized this is music that is filled with light.” Only three of the variations, she pointed out, are in a darker, minor key.

Her explanation of the structure of the Variations was helpful for someone like me, who has never studied up about them (Wikipedia has a wonderful, detailed article, I subsequently found). Her commentary helped me hear the emotional architecture that comes to a climax in the famous Variation 25, a crisis of pensive emotion, like a lull of silence in the city, that is eventually resolved in Variation 30, the extraordinary Quod Libet, where Bach combines four different songs. Two of them, Hagen pointed out, are known. “One is something along the lines of, ‘You have been away so long, come near, come near my love’. And the other song is very different. It says,’ Cabbages and turnips have driven me away, Mother, if you’d only cooked meat, I would have offered to stay’.”

Quod Libet is an improvised harmonizing that mixed up popular songs. Evidently, Bach’s family, most of whom were musicians, enjoyed quod libet at family gatherings, much to everybody’s amusement. It gives a homely touch that is both cheering and grounding.

At the very end is the reprise of the Aria on which the whole set of Variations is based. After such an intense journey of invention, virtuosity, dance, nobility, solemnity, joy, and even fun, the understated, somewhat melancholy emotion of the aria has acquired a poignant depth of experience, as if we have just gone through an entire life and come to the question of its meaning, for which the answer can lie only in the heart.

Hagen played the Variations at a somewhat slower tempo, which for me, was a relief, as they can be delivered with a crisp, swift brilliance that blurs them together and can be overwhelming, drowning the Aria in a deluge of virtuosity. Robert Newton, commenting afterwards, put it so well I must quote him: “I like hearing the details, voices and expressive phrasing.  Ah the voices!  It’s the quiet ones embedded in louder passages that speak out.  You ask, what was that?  There was one moment when she got me with it.  Those subtle voices are an aspect of piano playing that elevates the music to seem almost mystical.”  The pace was reflective, with pauses of greater or lesser extent between each variation, sometimes savouring the fade on the last note. In a word, her approach leaned to the romantic and unhistorical.

The Community Hall grand gave the playing a strong presence, something you could not experience just from a recording. This made the whole performance more personal with a greater awareness of the performer’s individual involvement. I was not listening simply to see how well the composer’s intent was delivered, nor to the performer as savant of the canon.

Hagen summed it up well: she pointed out that Bach annotated the score with the words “refresh” and “uplifting”. The voice that told her to learn the Goldbergs put her – and ourselves – on a path of hope to get through the pandemic – music for our times.

The performance is part of her Goldberg Variations album tour. The two-CD set was available at the door, together with two other of her CDs.

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