Chamber Music Hutt Valley
David Guerin (piano) with Bach’s Goldberg Variations
Lower Hutt Little Theatre
Sunday 17 April, 3:30 pm
This special, extra concert was presented to mark the unveiling of a plaque recording the names of donors to the Little Theatre Piano Fund. It would have been hard to think of a more monumental piece of music for the occasion than the Goldberg Variations.
The last time I heard David Guerin playing was in an ensemble of four at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson last February. Alone he played a piece from Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus, and with others, pieces by New Zealand composers.
This concert was a bit different: devoted to one great work alone.
It is a work that lends itself to almost endless performance and stylistic approaches. Some pianists get through the Goldberg’s in about 40 minutes; others can take round 90 minutes and there’s lots in between. Guerin was nearer the upper end. To me, each performance seems perfectly right after a couple of minutes. Though there are many piano aficionados who make a production of writing off one or another for reasons of tempo and many other displays of their erudition and refined taste, such as treatment of ornaments or performance on a modern piano instead of a harpsichord.
I don’t really remember David Guerin’s earlier playing of this work, for the Wellington Chamber Music Society, perhaps 20 years ago. Only that it was, I think, my first live hearing, and therefore a momentous occasion.
On Sunday I found myself in a totally accepting frame of mind, enjoying the extended playing time of the initial Aria, after which nothing else in this performance seemed too slow. When it’s played at such a deliberate pace, there’s room to hear every note individually, and they are exposed to the curious ear rather than caught up in great rushes of sound or electrifying cascades of decorative figuration. Very fast performances can create the impression for listeners that the piece is easy to play.
But I suspect that to play slowly and deliberately is more risky as the exact weight given to every note and the spaces between each, invites more awareness of any minor unevenness. So there can be a degree or two more anxiety or awareness by both player and listener of very minor blemishes that would simply not be perceived at speed. And so I was conscious of such things a great deal, and it brought me, someone with extremely modest keyboard accomplishments, to an even greater admiration for Guerin’s handling of the exposed technical demands of the music and of empathy with the suppressed nervousness that no doubt accompanied him.
And so it didn’t surprise me that the most virtuosic variations, some uncharacteristically fast, were among the most outwardly confident, for example, many of the so-called Arabesques, the second variation in each triplet: Nos 11, 17, 20, 26, 29 – this last particularly masterly. Several of these were specified by Bach to be played on a two-manual harpsichord, thus emphasising the importance he placed on achieving variations in colour and articulation.
Especially striking in Guerin’s performance were the last variations, which were variously, more bravura than most of the earlier ones, and some even slower. He seemed to spin out the Quodlibet endlessly, even to the point when I thought that he could be repeating certain phrases to create the sense of an endless experience. After all that, and after a Mahlerian length, seated almost motionless for an hour and a quarter, the return to the Aria was remarkable in its emotional impact, on the audience, and perhaps on the pianist; though as he slowly stood, he displayed neither relief nor exhaustion; not even exultation, which would have been justified.
The audience reaction left no doubt that they shared the latter emotion.