SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

J. S. BACH: Goldberg Variations – Winfried Bönig, organ – Motette

A must-have disc from the pedagogical point of view and for those who like me think that Bach, to quote a friend of mine, “is everything” in music.

Published on May 20, 2008

J. S. BACH: Goldberg Variations – Winfried Bönig, organ – Motette
J. S. BACH: Goldberg Variations – Winfried Bönig, organ – Motette Multichannel SACD MOT 13494, 64:15 – Performance ***** Sound ***** [Distr. by Albany]:

The organ used in this recording by Winfried Bönig was built in the year 2003 by the Ahrend organ works and is their Opus 159, a marvelous sounding modern Baroque style organ, housed in the Church of the Ursilines in Cologne, Germany. This organ has 19 stops on two manuals and pedal and to some extent is a reduced version of a typical early 1700’s Arp-Schnitger; it uses a historical tuning (a’= 449 Hz) for a modified mean-tone temperament.

Many, including Bönig, are of the opinion that there is no place for total and absolute purism in Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750), whatever this is meant to be. How his music should be interpreted and executed is open to much conjecture. Let’s go back in time; Bach composed in 1741 the fourth installment of his Clavierübung (Keyboard Practice) series, which he titled Aria rail verschaledemen Veranderungen (Aria with Diverse Variations) which since have acquired the more accessible title, the Goldberg Variations. The title Keyboard Practice says a lot to begin with about these variations since they were meant originally to be a pedagogical vehicle. In Bach’s time the notation fur clavier was not restricted to anyone instrument as it meant instruments, for example, like the clavicembalo, harpsichord, clavecin, clavicord, pedal-clavicord, pedal-harpsichord, spinet, virginal, pianoforte, organ and a number of other variations on the same theme. Pianos were if at all non-existent, other than primitive instruments like the Cristofori pianofortes of the early 1700s and later the Silberman pianofortes that Bach himself helped design.

There are degrees of difficulty associated with each and every one of these 32 variations, from the one considered to be the easiest, No. 27 in the Canon form (Track 28) and the most difficult of all, the No. 28 (Track 29), a trill étude characterized by furious fast passages. Another example of Bach’s genius is the No. 25 variation (Track 26) usually called the Chopin Variation for its mystical undertones, one far ahead of his time.

Bönig honors Bach’s original fermatas and their placement in reference to their corresponding variations, this is commendable when contrasted to Gould’s 1955 famous recording (and many other pianists’) and his denial of their existence. Variations No. 25 and 26 (Tracks 26 and 27) are played by Bönig following Bach directions, slow and fast respectively, but not extremely slow and extremely fast as commonly done these days. He obviously respects Bach’s variations groupings to the letter, for example, and the most important: Var. 3-5, 6-8, 9-10, 11-12, 25-26 and 27-28 and also obviously the first variation the Aria and the last the Aria da capo.

Fundamentally the variations consist of music that constantly remains the same and yet is always different from itself. How was this done? The 32 “fundamental notes” in the bass line reflect the Aria’s 32 measures in length. The latter also correlate in number to the 32 movements of the work including the Aria da capo (Track 32). Each individual variation is constantly coupled with the bass line which follows an ostinato model often found at that time in the chaconne. The Aria with its memorable melody (the theme) is the bass line basis for all the variations. To wit, the theme’s harmonic foundation is what generates each of the variations. Bach wrote these variations applying Baroque aesthetics; just as well Winfried Bönig the organist performs them within the same aesthetics.

It is admirable how Bach combines melodic independence between the variations with their simultaneous tonal harmonic underpinnings most readily associated with the main key of G and that’s one reason why many think of these the variations as transformations. All in all, Bach in these transformations derived from the Aria’s theme managed to created music that incorporated period dance elements from the sarabande, gigue, minuet, courante and allemande, reaching at the same time into distant chromatic territories almost blurring any sense of major-minor tonality. The last track (No. 33) is a bonus second or alternative version of Var. 30 (Track 31) the Quodiblet for one manual – not to be confused with P.D.Q. Bach’s other famous quodiblet!

If these 32 variations were to be performed “correctly” they would have to include all the repetitions that Bach wrote into them and as such the work would thus be heard twice and would last about 90 minutes; here Bönig recorded his “concert” version at about 60 minutes which include some repetitions while excluding others.

Finally, the booklet is beautifully illustrated and extremely well written and informative – a real asset to this disc. The sound on this 5.0 multichannel SACD is totally transparent and bright, with the sound being right in your face with some minimal though appropriate ambiance provided by the rear speakers. This is a must-have disc from the pedagogical point of view as well as for those who like me think that J.S. Bach, to quote a friend of mine, “is everything” in music.

— John Nemaric


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