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 on 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 hundreds 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 Vladimir 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.

It’s Baroque Month over on Bachtrack, with a selection of articles exploring repertoire and those who perform it…..

Long regarded as the most serious and ambitious work for keyboard, the Goldberg Variations display J S Bach’s exceptional knowledge of the many different styles of music of his day, and his own exquisite performing techniques. Originating from a simple idea – a beautiful aria over a ground (repeating) bass – the thirty variations present the history of Baroque music in microcosm: lavish displays of modern, fashionable expressive elements of the high Baroque, with just a hint of Classical idealism, together with magnificent structure and formal beauty. There are dances and canons, riddles and doodles, lightning flashes and filigree arabesques. Not until Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations was a similar work conceived on such a scale from a seemingly simple initial idea.

Read the rest of the article here

More from Baroque Month

(picture: A handwritten copy of the Goldberg Variations aria, from the notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1725. Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

When I was 11, by chance, I saw a piano in a front garden in my street. It had a sign on it saying’ Good Home Wanted. I wanted it! We wheeled it home and I was instantly drawn to it. I somehow knew that it contained something life-changing. From then on it was just a matter of learning, studying, and finding a way to make the piano speak. I knew when I first touched the piano that it would become my life.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

That warrants a multi-layered answer, I’m afraid, as there have been so many! One hugely important aspect has been my personal drive – not a ‘pushy’ drive, but more an absolute necessity to strive to play and communicate. A kind of influence from within…

Studying with Yonty Solomon when I was at the Royal College was life-changing. Up until then I’d never been taught – teachers had never nurtured or enhanced anything musical in me, and I now put this down to ego-driven, lazy, (non) teaching. Yonty was so generous and humble – I often worked every day with him. He opened up a whole new world of sound, expression and creativity. His ability to make me aware of things the piano could do was sheer genius.

Finally, although it sounds a bit downbeat, I have to admit that going through tremendous turmoil and difficulty in life has influenced and strengthened everything I do musically. From anguish comes understanding and creativity…

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Although I didn’t quite realise it at the time, I think making a ‘comeback’ concert after some 15 years of not even owning or touching a piano was a huge challenge, physically and emotionally. Not to mention musically! And I hadn’t played to an audience of any size for 18 years. So, a packed Cadogan Hall, plus critics, TV cameras and radio, and the English Chamber Orchestra on stage, and then playing two concertos (a Bach and Beethoven No. 5) could’ve been a recipe for disaster. I’m not quite sure how I did it, actually!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Along with the above performance, I have to say I’m incredibly proud of my recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It was my first CD – released after the ‘comeback’, but recorded just before it – and it was sheer joy to finally connect with the piano after so many years away from it. It felt like ‘coming home’ and embracing something truly wonderful.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

That’s such a hard question. I adore performing Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schumann solo works and concertos. I can only leave it to others to decide which I perform best…

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

It’s not difficult: I re-learn works that are programmed each season, and then I usually decide to add some new works to the mix. But I’m very, VERY traditional – core Classical repertoire only for me: Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and then Schumann and Brahms as the Romantics. I spent too many years thrashing away at Liszt, Prokofieff et al. Now I realise that there’s little room in that repertoire to stamp an absolute ideal, my own personality, or even something a bit different. It all pretty much sounds the same no matter who plays it – and so many do play it, and so well. But it still all sounds pretty much the same…

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I have to make an admission here: I usually love each hall I play in, at the time, Then, on reflection, I usually end up thinking it wasn’t such a great hall to perform in after all! It’s probably more to do with the actual pianos. The perfect piano in the perfect hall is so hard to find. Each needs the other. Alas it’s the life of a pianist to have to adapt to so many differing instruments.

But, there is one hall I do absolutely adore. The Metropolitan Festival Hall (Bunka Kaikan) in Tokyo – playing there was a dream as I really did have a perfect piano in an utterly magnificent hall.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Gosh, that’s a hard one. In theory, I love every work I’m playing. But, there’s nothing quite like performing the Goldberg Variations – yes, it’s massive and very draining by force of sheer concentration, but the experience is indescribable and almost other-worldly.

As for listening, I don’t really do as much of it these days as I’d like. So much music is whirring through my brain when I’m away from the piano that to add to it, by listening to something else, gets a little overwhelming.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I’m afraid they’re all dead. I am never unmoved by the commitment of Klemperer’s conducting. The effortless musicianship of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s voice. The power and pathos of Birgit Nilsson’s. Glenn Gould for the eccentric mind that drove his playing – and sometimes even for the odd giggle at what he does. Myra Hess’s piano playing, for the artistry. Youra Guller, a practically unheard of pianist now – but she was incredible. And so many more…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing/seeing ‘Tristan und Isolde’ in Munich a few years back – with the magnificent Waltraud Meier singing Isolde, and Zubin Mehta conducting. Earth-shattering!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

To work on each piece as though your life depends on it. But always try, with or without a teacher, to find something ‘personal’ to put into the music – something uniquely ‘you’. Nothing distasteful or silly, I’m talking more about making each piece really mean something on an emotional level. Aspiring musicians are so often schooled to play for exams or competitions, or to please this or that teacher, that the music is lost sight of. If there’s going to be any hope for the future of Classical Music, then we have to get back to basics: music is about feeling. Those pieces, even if composed hundreds of years ago, contain emotions just as valid to us today as they were to the composer. These are not ‘elite’ feelings – they’re simple and real and available to everyone. We can all connect on this level. Let’s not lose sight of it!

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m juggling Beethoven and Schumann: Beethoven Concertos 1 and 4. And Schumann’s ‘Kreisleriana’ and the ‘Etudes Symphoniques’. Next week I’ll add a Bach Partita to the mix. I think I need a holiday!

What is your most treasured possession?

A silver chain my late mother gave to me the night before I recorded the Goldberg Variations. She wore it every day for 40 years. I am never without it.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Spending time at home with my partner and my dog.

What is your present state of mind?

Focused. Yet still raring to go. And it’s 3am!

Nick van Bloss’s new CD of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is available now

Nick van Bloss was born in London and began piano lessons at the age of 11. His musical training began as a chorister at Westminster Abbey and he entered the Royal College of Music at the age of 15 as a Junior, attending full time from the age of 17, studying with Yonty Solomon and winning prizes for his playing. Further studies were with Benjamin Kaplan. In 1987, on hearing him play, the great Russian virtuoso, Tatiana Nikoleyeva, described van Bloss as the ‘finished article of a pianist’.

Read Nick’s full biography here

 

Li-Chun Su is a Taiwanese pianist based in Berlin and last week she was in the UK for a series of concerts, supported by Kumi Smith-Gordon, creator of the imaginative Soirées at Breinton. I was fortunate to hear Li-Chun at the OSO arts centre in Barnes, and with an audience of just eight people arranged around the piano, the experience was intimate and intense.

J S Bach’s Goldberg Variations are considered to be amongst the finest music for the keyboard. Originating from a simple idea – a beautiful aria over a ground (repeating) bass – the thirty variations present the history of Baroque music in microcosm: lavish displays of modern, fashionable expressive elements of the high Baroque, with just a hint of Classical idealism, together with magnificent structure and formal beauty. There are dances and canons, riddles and doodles, lightning flashes and filigree arabesques. Not until Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations was a similar work conceived on such a scale.  Li-Chun’s performance was vibrant, colourful and absorbing, showing a deep understanding of the structure, voicing and contrasting and varied material contained within the movements. The opening Aria was played with a spare elegance while the livelier variations were bright, poised and nimble. The slower variations were almost romantic with warm legato and sensitive dynamic shading. Li-Chun revealed herself to be a sympathetic and intuitive Bach player, and it was clear from her performance that she feels great affection for this music.

During the interval the audience were invited to vote for the pieces we wanted to hear in the second half. The choices included Schumann’s ‘Carnaval’, Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ and a handful of Chopin’s Nocturnes. In the event, Li-Chun played a triptych of works by Handel, including the variations known as The Harmonious Blacksmith, Mendelssohn’s ‘Variations Serieuses’, which tied in nicely with the Goldbergs, and Debussy’s ‘Claire de Lune’ and ‘Feux d’artifice’. Here she proved the breadth of her technique and musicality, a sensitive yet muscular pianist who is equally at home in Baroque repertoire as the late nineteenth-century. In ‘Claire de Lune’, for example, she revealed some interesting bass highlights, which are not always made apparent by pianists who prefer to focus on the melody in the treble. Her playing had a lovely lucidity which brought a special clarity to Debussy’s writing, something that it not easy to do.

Definitely ‘one to watch’, I very much look forward to hearing Li-Chun again when she next visits London.

www.lichunsu.com

Li-Chun Su kindly completed my Meet the Artist interview:

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music? 

The piano chose me. We had a piano at home. I love the piano and playing beautiful music so much. It happened without making a clear decision.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My teacher Gabor Paska, living in Berlin and supportive friends.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Four Liszt Concertos in one concert and Bach’s well-Tempered-Clavier Book I in one concert.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

The live concert recording of 2009 at the musical instruments museum in Berlin. I played Bach’s Well-Tempered-Clavier Book I for the first time without an intermission and almost achieved perfection in day.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Difficult to say. Time by time it changes.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

I have usually instinct to sniff out what I want and need to play.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

A lot of places. It is like making friends. I feel comfortable with some people, and some less.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

One nocturne by Chopin. I always play it after a good concert evening as an encore.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I remember well almost every concert

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

A love for the music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

A calm and confident feeling.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My passion for life.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

The process of making a thing come true.

What is your present state of mind? 

Secret…..

A native of Taiwan, Li-Chun Su received her musical training in Taipei and Berlin. She graduated from the Berlin University of Arts with the Konzertexsamen, the highest degree in graduate courses. She has studied with Tsia-Hsiuai Tsai, Laszlo Simon, Martin Hughes, Gabor Paska and Mitzi Meyerson.

Li-Chun Su took first prize in the Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Competition and in the Artur Schnabel Competition in 2007. In 2008 she was awarded the first prize in the Porto International Piano Competition in Portugal. She has had numerous invitations to perform across Asia, Europe and South America.

In the second part of our podcast, pianist and conductor Alisdair Kitchen and I talk more generally, covering aspects such as teachers, inspirations and influences, forthcoming projects – and baking.

Listen to the first part of the podcast here

Download the complete Goldberg Variations, performed, recorded and produced by Alisdair Kitchen here

Download Alisdair’s complete #twittergoldbergs commentary here

www.alisdairkitchen.com

Follow Alisdair on Twitter @alisdairkitchen

Here’s a delightfully simple and utterly enjoyable way to allow yourself some time off during your busy day.

Every day for a month pianist and conductor Alisdair Kitchen will post one of Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations on Norman Lebrecht’s blog Slipped Disc, accompanied by Alisdair’s personal commentary on the music.

Here’s the Aria

Get your Daily Goldberg Variations on Slipped Disc