Classical Music Guide Forum - Friday, July 22, 2011 - Written by Donald Isler

Yuan Sheng Recital - IKIF

Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

This evening, at Yuan Sheng's recital, a respected colleague told me how lucky he still feels that the very first time he heard the Hammerklavier Sonata in concert the pianist playing it was Rudolf Serkin. Which made me think about when I had heard the Goldberg Variations performed before. I'd heard recordings of the work. I have read through all or most of it, and none of it sounded unfamiliar. But when did I actually hear it played before in concert? To my embarrassment I realized: Probably never!

So this was it! My first time!

It was an extraordinary experience, thanks to a composer whose greatness is beyond words, and a fabulously talented artist.

The amazing content of the music aside, I could not think of any work in the standard repertoire (before the 20th Century, at least) where a pianist sits and plays continuously for 77 minutes, the length of the Goldberg Variations when played with all the repeats, as we heard it this evening. Does the performer (especially when playing from memory, as Mr. Sheng did) feel after an hour the "wall" a marathon runner may hit around mile 20?

Besides sheer stamina there are at least a few other elements necessary to bring off this music successfully.

The most obvious one is technique. That one will get you quite far, this music being so complicated much of the time, but it won't give you depth or subtlety.

Another element is understanding the ornamentation of Bach's time. But that's not the whole story, either. I cannot forget the long-ago experience of a lecture given by a man who considered himself a Bach expert. He spoke about the ornamentation at length but then played the music with a sound quite lacking in the appropriate nobility and character.

One can sometimes feel that almost nothing new, harmonically or rhythmically, has come along since Bach. This is an exaggeration, but not such a very big one, considering how sophisticated and difficult the music is. So one also needs imagination.

Then, too the modern piano did not exist when Bach wrote this work. But, as I've noted at previous concerts he's given, Yuan Sheng makes one feel that this music was written for this instrument. The Chinese and American-trained master has all the other qualities needed to succeed with Bach's music, too.

He understands pacing, both within and between the Variations. He always does repeats with a different sound or dynamic, or by slight alteration of the ornaments. He has a wide tonal palette (yes, Bach on the piano should be in COLOR, not just black and white!) and he has both the intellect and imagination to keep this huge work alive and afloat for over an hour and a quarter. It should almost go without saying that he has a big technique, capable of creating moments of excitement and brilliance, but the technique is always there to serve the music, never to show off. The MUSIC does that!

This recital was truly inspiring.

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