A new edition of the Goldberg Variations

Guest post by Pierre Tran

This article is also available in French – click here to download and read

Unlike Lang Lang, I didn’t study the Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach at the age of ten. On the contrary, despite being inspired by Glenn Gould in my teens, I only got into this masterpiece step by step before feeling able to embrace it as a whole, in all of its subtle dimensions, only a few years ago. As a piano teacher, I have been teaching several chosen pieces to some students who are overwhelmingly eager for advice, knowing that the Goldberg Variations is daunting and, reputedly, unplayable. As an example, I encountered a remark from a piano teacher who said to me that she can only sight-read it at best, but a thorough understanding is far beyond her reach.

So, my initial idea was to publish an edition which could help advanced learners get rid of the fear of this piece by incorporating ergonomic fingerings throughout, placing special attention on hand-crossings, and advice on how to play the ornaments, which is a critical issue, as everyone knows. Fingerings offered in this edition are not only based on a new approach to the art of piano fingering in general; such knowledge is also linked to Scaramuzza’s school of piano playing, first located in Argentina, and nowadays recognised by very few teachers around the world, but also, in particular, drawn from my own experience garnered over forty years as a piano teacher.

Urtext editions available to the public are not of any help regarding the character of each individual piece, unless one carries out additional historical and musicological research, which is what I did. There are many disputes among scholars regarding this issue. I put forward my own and unique understanding, supported by Jörg Ewald Dähler’s published works, and I also draw resources from several established musicologists, such as Peter Williams, for example. I also refer to musicians like Angela Hewitt, but my main input, apart from Glenn Gould himself, is Alfredo Casella, who published a pioneering, more or less historically-informed edition of the Well-Tempered Clavier in 1946.

Czerny, and later Busoni in 1918, tried to unravel the mystery of Bach’s profound and complex musical thoughts. However, their work is questionable in several historical aspects, and not fully reliable due to many dynamics or tempi markings which are not genuine. So, my second idea was to stick to the original score whilst phrasing it, but in such way that we come closer to an overall and comprehensive view of the Goldberg Variations, while carefully avoiding any other marks (dynamics, tempi, pedalling) which can be left to one’s will. This intention is enhanced by a beautiful and refined layout which makes the music much easier to read than any Urtext version available.

This work is nothing other than a blend between intimate musical intuitions, which require a spiritual approach to life, and historical facts, along with musicological discoveries, some of which are not widely distributed. Furthermore, Bach’s language is universal and can fit other cultural backgrounds, such as oriental ones. Thanks to my Chinese heritage, I feel close to Zhu Xiao-Mei, whose Buddhist-like rendition of the Goldberg is splendid, having myself introduced some Taoist principles into my work. In other words, this work is personal and also suprapersonal, eventually generating these two burning questions: ‘Is there a secret buried in the organic structure of each piece which has so far not yet been entirely discovered, one to which access can be gained only at the piano? If so, what is its nature?

I have attempted to answer these questions by means which are simple, and yet powerful: innovative fingering, phrasing that is at once inspirational and revelatory, and a cantabile, never percussive touch – though, admittedly this last area is more intuitive than explicit.

Finally, such an edition should take into account musical insights from a wide range of famous pianist – from Rosalyn Tureck to Evgeni Koroliov, not forgetting András Schiff or Murray Perahia, for example, I spent a lot of time listening to a hundred of these individual and outstanding interpretations in order to draw a summary which is faithful and can be transposed into musical ideas, understandable by many. To widen my knowledge, I also felt it was instructive to listen to harpsichordists (Gustav Leonhardt and Andreas Staier, for example), or to organ players. However, like András Schiff, I do not like transcriptions, except for the version for string trio by Dmitry Sitkovetsky, who claimed to be inspired by Glenn Gould.

Along with this revised and fingered score, I have written commentaries, one per variation, thirty two in total, as a natural development of an in-depth presentation where I not only challenge the myth surrounding the composition itself, but I also explore the question of ‘which piano make is the most suitable for recording the Goldberg Variations, if there is one?

These commentaries finally open a window to a more philosophical vision of the Goldberg Variations, religion aside. There are many ways of organising these pieces according to scholars. I tried to highlight some of them, the most accurate ones which are probably the least discernible because they are linked to a hidden cosmic order, but without constraining anyone to adhere to such ideas. My main goal is to make these variations technically more playable, so one’s mind is free to explore one’s deep inner feelings which ultimately lead to a meditative journey, and a life-changing experience.

Pierre Tran’s new edition of the Goldberg Variations is designed for both teachers and performers alike, and is based on history, musicology, and the art of interpretation by the greatest pianists in history. Fingering and phrasing, in-depth commentaries on each variation and pedagogical advice, in English and French.

Further information/order a copy

Pierre Tran, a pianist and teacher for the last 40 years, comes from an industrial family of Chinese origin, which had relocated to Madagascar. Following secondary school in Paris, his university studies led to a degree in Architecture which he obtained in 1981. It is to his aunt that he owes his passion for music and also the desire to teach, she herself was a school teacher in China after a career as a business woman.

In 1979 he met his piano master, Thibaut Sanrame (192-2001) who was a disciple of Scaramuzza. Thanks to this professor,for the next 10 years, he developed an artistic and scientific approach which he applies to music in order to reveal its secrets. Owing to this experience he began teaching piano at a young age.

For many years he founded his search for musical beauty on the principles of Scaramuzza’s school, following the genius of the creator.

His personal journey led him to India for 10 years where his conception of music took on a spiritual dimension.

Since his return to Europe, via France and the UK, Pierre has run a piano learning centre, a laboratory of research. His students come from over the world to benefit from the methods which he loves to share. His knowledge is multidisciplinary, and always founded on a synthetic vision. This includes piano construction and tuning, as he is interested in the relationship between the artist and technician.

His work on the Goldberg Variations is the follow up to an essay which he published in 2009.