Harpsichordist Paolo Bordignon

Harpsichordist Paolo Bordignon

Crescenta Valley Weekly

April 20, 2017


There are few moments in music that equal the poignancy of the final pages of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” It’s a journey that begins in the exquisitely poised “Aria,” treks across a panoply of 30 variations on that theme, and finally ends right back where it started, with a note-for-note reprise of the opening. The feeling that washes over the listener at that moment is like that of returning to one’s childhood home after the passing of many years, and finding everything just as it once had been. Yet it has all been suffused with the experience of the intervening years, casting a shadow of regret that reminds one that, after all, the past has passed.

It’s fitting that Camerata Pacifica’s 2016-17 season should follow suit: Opening with a performance of the “Goldberg Variations” (in an arrangement for chamber ensemble), then closing with the same piece (this time in the original version).

Harpsichordist Paolo Bordignon will perform Bach’s massive keyboard opus this Saturday. Taking a break from his rehearsing, Bordignon spoke with the Crescenta Valley Weekly about his performance.

Crescenta Valley Weekly (CVW): When did you first begin playing Bach’s music? What appeals to you about the “Goldberg Variations”?

Paolo Bordignon (PB): My first encounter with the music of Bach was playing little pieces that he wrote to teach his children to play. As a boy chorister I was awestruck when I heard his “Christmas Oratorio” come together. Bach has always been a desert island composer for me; I’ve enjoyed playing and listening to his music more than any other composer. The “Goldberg Variations” in particular are one of the great monuments of art, the pinnacle of technique and expression of my instrument. To interpret and perform it is a tremendous gift and a challenge.

CVW: A few seasons ago, Camerata Pacifica programmed Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations.” Many commentators have claimed that there are similarities or parallels between it and Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” But the two works, aside from sharing the variation form, are highly distinct from one another. In what way is the Bach piece different from Beethoven?

PB: The comparison probably arises out of a desire to place the “Goldberg Variations” within the canon of music for keyboard. A number of historians have turned to large-scale sets of variations to represent some of the greatest works for keyboard over the centuries: Byrd’s “Walsingham” (16th), the “Cento Partite” of Frescobaldi (17th), Bach’s “Goldberg” (18th), Beethoven’s “Diabelli” or Brahms’ “Paganini” (19th).

CVW: Earlier this season, Camerata Pacifica performed the work in a transcription for chamber ensemble. Do you feel that certain qualities are lost or obscured when performing the work in such a transcription? Or when performing the work on a modern piano as it often is? Why or why not?

PB: The title of the piece as Bach published it – a rare privilege among his works – is “Aria with diverse variations for harpsichord with two keyboards.” Performance on the harpsichord enables us to revisit the work within the sound world in which, and for which, it was conceived. The piece looks to all aspects of harpsichord playing and technique in ways that are as encyclopedic as the work’s exploration of styles, genres, and compositional technique.

CV: In the early and mid 20th century, Stokowski spoke of Bach as being a “red-blooded he-man,” while Furtwängler called him “the greatest Romantic.” Today he is popularly regarded as a craftsman, even a “cerebral” composer. Do you feel that there either of these views are borne out by his music?

PB: In the hands of lesser composers, we might look to variations, fugues, or canons and celebrate their clockwork beauty, the way the notes are made to fit together. But in the “Goldberg,” Bach goes so far beyond that, composing works that are extraordinarily clever in their construction—the canons especially come to mind, of course—while also exploring the richness and intensity of emotion that Stokowski or Furtwängler are speaking about. The variations are exquisite in the expressivity whether or not you realize that it’s also a part of an incredibly organized musical structure.

Paolo Bordignon will be performing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” on Saturday, April 22 at 3:00 p.m. at the Huntington Library’s Robert C. Ritchie Auditorium (1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino). Tickets are $56. To obtain tickets and more information, please go online to http://cameratapacifica.org/season-tickets/order-tickets/, e-mail tickets@cameratapacifica.org, or call (805) 884-8410.

©Crescenta Valley Weekly