Monday 4 April 2016

Grounded Goldbergs - Steven Devine at Kings Place Bach Weekend

Steven Devine
Steven Devine
Bach Goldberg Variations; Steven Devine; Kings Place Bach Weekend
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Apr 2 2016
Star rating: 4.0

An engaging and playful performance of Bach's seminal variations

Bach’s Goldberg Variations are the last set from his Clavier-Übung cycle and one of the few works published in his lifetime. Steven Devine played them in the afternoon performance at Kings Place on 3 April 2016 as part of the Bach Weekend. Th variations are the subject of much research, and much reverence, but Steven Devine’s concise spoken introduction on Saturday to a capacity Hall 2 audience provided an entry point for newcomers to the piece who may have been intimidated by the inevitable association with Glenn Gould – as well as providing food for thought for those more familiar with the work.

Devine described the structure of the piece, with its Aria that is not (as some would have us believe) by Anna Magdalena. He talked of the Aria and its da capo, with the ‘scaffolding’ of the canons after every third variation. He discussed the Quodlibet and its source material, for example the song ‘cabbages and beets my mother served to me; if she had served more meat I would have stayed’. He mentioned some of the technical aspects such as the recent innovation of pièces croisées where the hands crossed over, and described the set as a ‘catalogue of dance forms’. He also let us know that he would play all the repeats and may need to tune his harpsichord (which didn’t happen). He certainly made us feel we were in safe hands.

On to the playing. The Aria had a wonderfully languid, relaxed feel as we got our ears used to the dry acoustic of Hall Two. It was initially surprising that we weren’t in the livelier acoustic of Hall One, but actually the black curtain and the wide stage suited the instrument (from Alan Gotto of Norwich) and the earthy character of Devine’s playing very well. There was a visual and acoustic intimacy, and a sense that we were part of a private improvisation rather than a public concert. There were lots of contrasts: from the lazy Aria the jolt into the first Variation; the jaunty Gigue Variation 7; the muscular Fugue Variation 10; the brooding Canone alla Quinta Variation 15, and through to the folksy Quodlibet. Everything felt like a leisurely late-night conversation between friends, alternating between easy fluidity and big questions. We felt very involved in the proceedings, and when the Aria came round again – played with more rubato and with a generous lazy quality for the da capo – there was a thought: ‘Are we there already?’ – it certainly didn’t seem like 70 minutes since we set out.

The notion that the Goldbergs were intended as a cure for the Count Keyserlingk’s insomnia was far from our minds; this was engaging and playful, and far from soporific even though it occupied the post-lunchtime slot of the Kings Place Bach Weekend.

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