Robert Costin’s rewarding organ exploration of the Goldberg Variations

TGIF recital at St Paul’s

Robert Costin (organ)

Bach’s Goldberg Variations – a selection

Friday 26 July, 12:45 pm

On one of his frequent return visits to New Zealand (he was assistant organist at St Paul’s in the mid 1990s), Robert Costin made time to play at one of the cathedral’s Friday lunchtime recitals that enjoy the title TGIF (Thank God it’s Friday is the full liturgical title).

He has created an organ adaptation of the Goldberg Variations, which he has recorded on the organ of Pembroke College, Cambridge. That is a small chapel organ of two manuals and pedal board; the 1708 organ has been considerably modified but the most recent work on it has restored it significantly. That recording, which I bought at the Friday recital, offers a much less exciting and colourful account, though admirably clear and no doubt closer to Bach’s aesthetic, than Costin was able to offer on the opulent if seriously hybrid organ in the present cathedral.

The lunchtime concerts are restricted to about 45 minutes; this was of scarcely a half hour’s duration, consisting of the Aria and fourteen of the thirty variations.

The unregenerate, such as this reviewer, finds great pleasure in the Cathedral organ and he thoroughly enjoyed this performance, and would have been happy to have been subjected to the entire work.

The great variety of ways in which Bach’s music can be treated, given some basic constraints, of an educated taste, is always a surprise. I found myself won over as the Aria began, projecting a very open and sophisticated statement. And the first variation followed suit in its sheer joyous optimism. There was something essentially of Bach in the adaptations even though there were obviously sounds that organs of his day could not have produced.

Variation 4 using pedals prominently created an even bolder and more colourful effect than could be obtained on either harpsichord or an organ of Bach’s time.  Certain variations such as No 13, using light stops and charming, delicate embellishments, lost nothing at all of such refinement.  No 16, in French ouverture style, offered a fine extrovert contrast that used power of the bigger stops to rousing effect.

Even though we heard fewer than half of the variations, Costin had chosen a very representative group; only a listener with the entire work in the memory might have regretted missing certain ones.

The charm of this performance lay in the enjoyment of the taste and skill of an organist who was clearly fully familiar with and in such full command of the instrument that he could have transformed music of much less intrinsic beauty and profundity into a totally rewarding experience.

You will find details of the CD on Costin’s website:  or


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