February 21, 2017

Beatrice Rana on the 'life journey' that is Bach's Goldberg Variations

"It's a very human but also very spiritual experience," is how the young Italian pianist sees Bach's masterpiece.

Beatrice, why did you choose to record Bach’s Goldberg Variations for your second album on Warner Classics?

BR: There are many reasons. The first is that I always had a very close relationship with Bach’s music. It’s been a long time that I’ve wanted to play the Goldbergs and finally I had the courage, and I felt it was the right moment to record. My last recording for Warner Classics was the Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky concertos,  and this was a physically demanding, extroverted album, and I wanted to somehow say that my pianism is not only that kind of pianism. I always wanted to play the Goldbergs and to have a recording project was a wonderful long-term project.

Why now?

If you think too much about these kinds of pieces, you are never going to play them on stage. And that’s such a pity to be a pianist, to devote your life to piano, and not to be able to play the Goldbergs on stage.

Has playing them on stage influenced your approach in the studio?

I practised the Goldbergs a lot before bringing them to the stage. And I needed a lot of reflection to make this decision. But from the first moment I played them live it’s changed. The Goldberg Variations is a very intellectual work but also a very emotional one. So when you get a chance to bring the emotional side on stage you see how people react and you feel how you yourself change. It’s always an evolution. Every performance of the Goldbergs is a different one, and I have to say it’s one of the most amazing adventures on stage I have ever experienced.

It’s a very human but also very spiritual experience. I think that the most effective reaction of the audience is the silence afterwards. That happens all the time. After such an amazing piece of music with all its architecture and details, it’s like a psychological view on yourself. The silence that comes afterwards is everything. You see that people cannot just clap right away; they need to meditate on it.

What would you say to people who think the Goldberg Variations are a bit boring, because it’s all in one key and all in this meditative mood?

It could easily be boring! It’s not variation in the sense we know it like Rachmaninov variations, that it changes and develops so much that it’s not the same work; actually the title is not even Variations, it’s Veränderungen: he takes the same harmony and structure each time.  On the other hand there’s so much fantasy and imagination in the writing that it’s also very easy not to make them boring. It depends on how you see the work. I think the main misunderstanding is that it’s intellectual. Of course it is, but it’s not only intellectual.

What are the main technical challenges playing this work?

The main challenge is the hand crossing, because the Goldbergs were not conceived for piano, but for harpsichord with two manuals. So all this transcription for one keyboard creates a lot of trouble. But it’s also difficult to find enough variety of sound within the style. It’s not like finding different sounds within Romantic or modern music.

When did you first start playing them?

I started practicing them when I was eleven. Somehow the score was always on the piano and I was always taking the score and trying to practise. Finally I decided to play them seriously three years ago.

How did you get to know the Goldberg Variations so intimately?

I always played so much Bach daily – my teacher complained that I was playing too much Bach! But at some point I got far from Bach because I started playing in competitions. And in some competitions if you play Bach you’re out in the first round. There’s nothing more dangerous than playing Bach for a jury. It’s always so controversial. Some people think you cannot use the pedal or play Bach on a modern piano. I got very far from Bach. When I knew I was done with competitions, I said immediately the day after, ‘now I will go back to Bach!’ I wanted to do the Goldbergs but I was not ready, so I played some other works to warm up for the Goldbergs.

What are your impressions of the recording session?

The recording sessions over three days were very intense. With my previous recording with orchestra it was a very extroverted, powerful experience. This time I was alone with a Steinway in a room in Berlin in a nice area where there isn’t a single noise, and the studios are incredible.  It was an intimate atmosphere, very concentrated, and I was lucky to have Jørn Pedersen with me, he’s an amazing producer. It’s great to have such an ear; he could tell me everything.

Do you use pedal? Do you play all the repeats?

I use the pedal. I play all the repeats, but I don’t play them the same. As a performance experience, people need the repeats to understand what’s going on, because it’s a very complicated writing. So when you listen to them with a different perspective, under another light, people can really experience the music deeply.

Which are your favourite variations?

I love Variation 13 which is the first slow major one. There are some canons that are so amazingly written. Also the last minor one, No.25, but I think that’s everyone’s favourite. Somehow the slow ones are particularly striking.

Are you an insomniac?

The Goldberg Variations make me an insomniac!

What is the message of the Goldberg Variations?

The message is different for everybody. It’s a very mixed message. On one hand you can feel it’s a very spiritual piece, but on the other hand you feel that it’s human and there’s so much joy of life. It’s amazing how these two things can coexist at the same time and be accepted by everyone, it’s the universality of this music.

Do you have a favourite recording?

When I was very young I was completely shocked by the first Glenn Gould recording, I loved Gould’s sincerity and that direct sound, his ideas are so striking. Then when I came to study the Goldberg’s closely I decided not to listen to anyone because it’s so easy to be influenced by someone else playing; I wanted my approach to the score to be the most sincere and faithful.

Which Gould recording do you prefer?

I find the first recording better than the second one, even though the second one has much more knowledge behind it. I like the freshness of the first one. He was so brave and so direct. He wanted to say ‘that’s me’. It was the Gould revolution for Bach playing. Gould will always have a very special place in my heart.

What do you think about the people who wait their whole lives to record the Goldberg Variations, when you waltz into the studio and record them at the age of 23?

All the devoted Bach players, they were never happy with one recording. And that’s because these pieces that are so big, so incredible, they need a lifetime, and I am totally aware of that. You need to start it early in order to have this journey ahead of you.

Is this work a journey?

I see the piece as a journey. And like every good journey, you don’t feel the same at the end of it.

Of course it’s a masterpiece, the kind of work you need a lifetime to discover – right now what I wanted to do was to say how I see the Goldbergs now, not only in recording but also in performance. I always consider Bach a very human composer. His genius is in using counterpoint and fugato, canons, this mathematical way of writing, to express something more profound. That’s the point of Goldberg Variations. Many people think it’s just an amazing example of counterpoint but it’s an instrument for something else. The reason it’s so important to the history of music is not the amazing writing but the message that lies behind the music. It’s important for people to forget a little bit about the intellectual part and to embrace the human part.

Beatrice Rana's Bach: The Goldberg Variations is out 24 February.