Interview avec Pierre Réach: A “sense of joy” flows from Bach’s Goldberg Variations
Veteran French pianist Pierre Réach has focused a large part of his professional career on Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Over the years Prof. Réach has developed a love for these thirty “small words”, as he calls them, deriving “profound joy” from Bach’s genius. A founding faculty member of the Barcelona Escola Superior de Musica de Catalunya, Prof. Réach acknowledges a sense of humility and even fear in playing the Variations, which he ranks as among the greatest music ever composed. A close study of the Variations reveal the intellectual span, the imagination and the genius which permit such daring freedom, the late musicologist Ralph Kirkpatrick wrote.
The Variations were composed in 1741 for Bach’s student Johann Gottleib Goldberg, probably the first harpsichordist to perform them. They were intended to aid Count Keiserling in his bouts with insomnia. Today, performed on the modern piano by most prominent pianists, the emotive power of the music is likely to produce anything but sleep.
In this clip, Prof. Réach performs the entire set:
Glenn Gould’s version, says Prof. Réach, is “the reference”. He likens the opening Aria as so powerful as to evoke an immense mountain to climb, and “the fear that you don’t have the boots to conquer it.”
In our interview, Prof. Réach says he cautions his students in Barcelona to approach the Variations with care, warning them “the path will be long and will require great patience”. He has personally overcome his fear of this “masterpiece of masterpieces”, having recorded them three times and performed them in about 15 countries a total of about 150 times.
Never tiring of the intricacies of the Variations, he says he plays some of them every morning to put himself “in a good mood, ready to make music”.
I first met Prof. Réach at his school in Barcelona. We struck up a vibrant friendship that led to our interview, conducted by email exchanges over several days. I sensed from the beginning that he was the artist who could explain the magic of the Goldberg Variations. I think I was right.
Here follows our conversation, which I have translated from the French.
Q. You are well known for your association with Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Do you remember how this happy partnership got started ?
Yes, I remember the first performance, and despite the immense difficulty of this work everything went well. I played the entire set from memory, which with repeats totaled one hour and 12 minutes. I will never forget it. My second recital was in Franconville in the Paris area and shortly thereafter I made my first recording for the Cybélia label. Little by little, thanks to good reviews and some word-of-mouth, I became known as a Goldberg interpreter.
Q. About how many times have you played this set in your career?
A. As of today, I would say I have played them 150 times in about 15 different countries.
Q. What performances particularly marked you?
A. One special event was in Gstaad in 2017 at a winter festival. One of the members of the audience was Alejandro von der Pahlen , a direct descendant of Kaiserling, to whom these compositions are dedicated. We calculated that we are separated from that era by seven or eight generations.
Q. With age and maturity, how have you modified your Goldberg performances – a lot, a little or not at all?
A. You know, the aging process and maturity can be a factor but not the only one. I have often noticed among the younger players that spontaneous intuition – unique and exceptional – can be stronger than among adults. Look at what’s happening in China, where you have all these exceptional young musicians whose playing moves us so, and who give the impression that our music was written for them !
Q. But the Goldbergs seem to occupy an important place in your own musical makeup. You must have noticed some evolution, even some revelations?
A. It’s true, with the passage of time, one learns and reflects more, even unconsciously. Let’s just say that as the years pass I have felt the unique simplicity and luminosity of this music.
Q. Do you make a conscious effort to maintain a freshness in your interpretations, or does the music itself liberate you?
A. I find that I love this music differently every day and every period of my life. So I play it differently but I try to stay true to the text and to remain simple. Furthermore – without sounding too sure of myself – there should be no “effort” in playing any music; I tell my students that, on the contrary, music should be liberating when played well. Maria Callas, whom I admire above all others, used to say that anything that is well sung is in itself a liberation. I would add, without any special effects, that it is only the simplicity matters.
Q. Still, there is a concentration of means, which equals effort, doesn’t it?
A. If you are playing to please, or to show off an effect or a quality that you believe you have, your playing is not true. One must work extremely hard and overcome all the technical obstacles, and to conclude after months of work what you want to say, how you will relate to the music. Only when this implacable and rigorous preparation is finished, and with the greatest respect for the text, can you deliver to the public the infinite enthusiasm of the music that you have inside you -- like a gift of love and nothing else.
Q. A great musicologist, the late Ralph Kirkpatrick, wrote that the Goldbergs are too profound and complex to describe in words. Would you agree?
A. Yes, but it is not only true for the Goldbergs. The last sonatas of Beethoven are also impossible to describe in words. The great pianist Wilhelm Kempff once said the Beethoven’s Hammerklavier is so complex that it should be read, not played. I totally understand what he meant.
Q. What emotions do you feel when playing the Variations? Joy? Humility? Fear?
A. I am tempted to say all three – obviously beginning with profound joy. And humility before Bach and his genius for having found such work inside himself. And fear, certainly, for when one plays the Goldberg opening Aria you have the impression of being confronted with a mountain of immense altitude and the fear that you don’t have the boots to conquer it !
Q. Which edition of the Variations do you prefer? There are so many out there.
A. Personally I prefer the Henle but I don’t really follow the musicologists and specialists in editions, not even in Baroque music. In international competitions, the jury is never in agreement in Bach performances because the markings are not there. A pianist must have confidence – probably too great – in the interpretations. But ornamentation aside, it’s the general thrust, the spirit and the thinking behind the work that matter most.
Q. You have written that when playing the Goldbergs you get the feeling of “physical possession of the sonic material” and the “source of universal spirit”. How do these sentiments act upon you personally? Are you transported into another dimension?
A. Physical possession of a musical instrument is the feeling of fusion. You become part of it. There is no barrier. It’s like physical love. I have experienced this feeling with the Goldbergs and with certain Beethoven sonatas because I have worked with them so thoroughly that they have become part of me. People say “one must love oneself in order to love others”. This makes me smile because I don’t really love myself but I love playing Bach or Beethoven, and in loving them I love myself through them and thanks to them.
Q. And your term “universal spirit”?
A. Obviously there is no religion in this work. Bach was a great mystic but in these compositions he went beyond his mystical spirit. There is only luminous joy, even beyond the feeling of love where there is redemption, total luminosity.
Q. To what degree have you been able to personalize your Variations? As we discussed, the text allows a certain liberty, in ornamentation and tempo.
A. I do not personalize anything. I try to allow the music to emerge. Obviously I have my ideas but they are dictated exclusively by the text. I don’t think I modify anything. I always try to bring a sense of space, to feel the music more in orchestral terms. Polyphony after all is only the science of space in which every instrument or voice can be heard – not alone but alongside its “neighbors”. One does not have the right to appropriate or personalize anything.
Q. Have you studied other pianists in an attempt to understand their originality? There are many examples to consult -- Glenn Gould (twice), Schiff, Tureck, Perahia, et la rescapée des camps de Mao, Zhu Xiao Mei, parmi beaucoup d’autres. Lequel est votre favori ?
A. Glenn Gould is clearly the reference for all of us but I often have wanted to avoid this atmosphere of genial laboratory doctor where he sometimes leads us. Nevertheless, his clarity and the elements he reveals are unequaled.
Q. So you will accept that in listening to other artists you begin to understand the music better?
A. Listening to others is indispensable. I adore all the other pianists you cite. Indeed I love artists who play the Goldbergs because to me it’s proof of their many qualities. I have listened to Andras Schiff, Murray Perahia, Daniel Barenboim, Maria Tipo and many other great artists.
Q. I believe Alexis Weissenberg left an impression on you?
A. In my younger years I was very impressed by Weissenberg’s interpretation. He personally gave me regular advice for my playing when I visited him. He was so important to me. He introduced me to Maria Curcio, who would become my greatest and most marvelous professor. Yes, the first hearing of Weissenberg’s Goldbergs was a revelation and I set right to work learning this masterpiece of masterpieces. I have long considered the Goldberg Variations as one of the greatest works ever composed.
Q. In this flood of recordings, how do you avoid the temptation to borrow ideas from others?
A. I don’t borrow ideas from others. If I did so, I would feel I was lying to myself. Just as in other walks of life I try never to blindly repeat what I hear spoken around me.
Q. Nearly all the pianists I know personally have studied the Variations at the conservatory level or before. Do you consider them essential for the formation of a serious player?
A. Yes, but no more essential than the Well-Tempered Clavier or the Beethoven sonatas. Furthermore, the study of the Goldbergs is a long-term undertaking and at the conservatory one cannot devote an entire year to a single work – one must experience different kinds of music by studying a range of composers.
Q. Isn’t it true that the Variations are too complex and profound for younger students?
A. I never force such choices on anyone. But if a student tells me he or she wants to study the Goldbergs I encourage them while warning them the path will be long and will require great patience.
Q. In these 30 “small worlds” as you have described the Variations, one can find almost everything. You have written that in recitals you derive from them a “wonderful renewal”. Is this unique in your large repertoire?
A. No, it’s not really unique. I get this same feeling at the end of the Beethoven sonata opus 109. It’s not a closure of a cycle, as one sometimes hears, it is on the contrary a new life , a resurrection in a way, as if enriched and comforted by what went before, in the Variations. One can continue again and again to approach the light. Beethoven demonstrated this idea by adding bass octaves in the return of the theme after the Variations and these octaves, which did not exist in the initial theme, make the bass more profound.
Q. What was Bach’s secret – his way of making the Variations go straight to the heart?
A. I really think it is the sense of joy. This is my opinion because there is never a morning when I do not start, upon opening my piano, by playing some of the Variations to put myself in a good mood, and ready to make music. They are a kind of universal vitamin. Ah, if only they could heal all disorders we suffer today.
Q. Your last recording of the Variations dates back to 2013. Do you plan another recording? You probably have more to say in this music, don’t you?
A. It certain that if a publisher proposed another version (it would be my fourth) I would accept with pleasure because I would have the feeling it would extend my lifespan. What good news that would be !
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