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Decoding the Goldberg Variations

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations and 14 Canons, Richard Egarr, harpsichord (will be released on March 14, 2006)
This is fascinating, from an article by Lynne Heffley (A 'Variations' that Bach could love, March 6) for the Los Angeles Times (links added):
Promising to give it "the full monty," British harpsichord maestro Richard Egarr, making his first solo tour of the United States, will perform J.S. Bach's masterwork, the "Goldberg Variations," as well as the seldom-heard 14 "Goldberg Canons," on Friday at the Doheny Mansion in Los Angeles. Egarr, an internationally known keyboard virtuoso and conductor and the director of Amsterdam's Academy of the Begijnhof, plays the "Goldberg Variations" using a tuning only recently published by harpsichord scholar Bradley Lehman. Lehman decoded a "squiggle" on the title page of Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier" that he believes described the composer's tuning system, Egarr explained in a phone interview. "Other people have been trying to find Bach's tuning," Egarr says. "It's a bit of a Holy Grail in a way." Although not universally accepted, Lehman's discovery is "quite a convincing and most brilliant piece of detective work. It really sounds fantastic in Bach's keyboard music — and that seems to me proof, if anything. It really does work with the music."
The program of the Los Angeles concert, supposedly, is not the Goldberg Variations. As for this version, I reserve musicological judgment until I see something more specific and hear it for myself, but I advise you to read the whole article. Readers, you can hear it yourself on March 11 (Early Music Guild in Seattle), March 19 (Frick Collection, New York). I won't be able to make it to any of those performances, but I'll try to find some reviews.

Thanks to attentive and helpful Ionarts reader Margarita, who left a comment with a link to an article by Ernie Rideout (300 Years Ago Today, December 2005) in Keyboard. The musicologist who came up with this interpretation, Bradley Lehman, has a Web site. Here is his theory of the Bach tuning, which he formulated in 2004 and published in Early Music last year. More about it when I have had the chance to digest all of this material.


Charles T. Downey said...

Margarita, thanks for the article link, which looks it will have answers (either there or through other links) to all of my questions.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charles, any assessments yet in the intervening weeks?

As you might already know, my main article can be downloaded free through the links on this page:

The temperament makes even more spectacular effects in keys other than the G major and G minor of the Goldberg Variations. My own recordings are available since January, on both harpsichord and organ:

Peter Watchorn's set of WTC book 1, using this, should be released momentarily. I have already heard a preliminary copy of it from him. Then, he will be using this temperament further for his ambitious series of the Bach harpsichord repertoire:

As section 2 of the Oxford paper points out, I urge you to set this up yourself on harpsichords to play through the musical examples...tuning is of course such a hands-on skill, and part of the fun is to hear/feel how the intonation influences one's own phrasing as a player.

Bradley Lehman

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks to Prof. Lehman for the added information. A copy of Egarr's recording of the Goldberg Variations has just come into my hands. A follow-up post, hopefully, in the next couple of days.