UNLIKE MOST CLASSICAL music fables, this one is probably true: Once there was an insomniac count who liked to have his court harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb

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Bach to the future

Murray Perahia puts his personal stamp on the Goldberg Variations.

UNLIKE MOST CLASSICAL music fables, this one is probably true: Once there was an insomniac count who liked to have his court harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, beguile his sleepless hours by playing. Goldberg asked his teacher (none other than Johann Sebastian Bach) for a suitably lengthy piece, and Bach provided a set of 30 variations on the bass line of a brief but slow movement.

Pianist Murray Perahia

UW campus, Meany Hall October 17

The resulting hour-long piece, known as the Goldberg Variations, became one of the monuments of the keyboard repertory. But it was considered arcane, specialists' music, until Canadian pianist Glenn Gould chose it for a spectacular debut recording in 1955. Few pianists have become so identified with a work as Gould with the Goldbergs, especially since he rerecorded it in 1981, a project that turned out to be the last recording released during his lifetime: With a symmetry that eerily echoes Bach's compositional tendencies, one of the most acclaimed piano careers of the last century began and ended with these variations.

Noted for solo recitals and concerto performances with all the world's great orchestras, Murray Perahia approached the Goldberg legacy gingerly; this fall he finally recorded the work and is playing it on tour, fortuitously, on the 250th anniversary of the composer's death. He'll bring it to Meany Hall next Tuesday, just a couple weeks after the CD release.

Perahia's interpretation is fantastic and compelling. What struck me first, and most deeply, is the astonishing range of touch and tone Perahia uses to nurture each variation to individual fruition. Though he plays the variations on a standard modern concert grand, there's a bit of original-instrument fortepiano sound (a touch of—and I mean this in the nicest way—hollowness) in the pointed right-hand part of Variation no. 8. In Variation 9 his tone seems softer-edged, even vocal, as if the three weaving lines were a soprano-alto-bass chorus. Then in Variation 17 he plays broken-chord passages with a detachment that sounds just like violin articulations—even creating an illusion, to my ears, of the rosiny crunch of bow on strings.

For Gould the Goldbergs were a single gem with 30 facets, the work of a masterfully imaginative jeweler; Perahia, it seems, likes to point up each variation's individual character—an approach similar to Craig Sheppard's at his 1999 Benaroya Hall recital, which was the last time Seattle heard the Goldbergs. For Sheppard, the work was a colorful and fantastical suite of miniatures, not too far from Schumann's Carnaval or Chopin's Preludes.

OTHER RECENT RECORDINGS have explored the nonkeyboard possibilities implied in the work. I wonder if Perahia, in recreating those string sounds, had in mind Dmitry Sitkovetsky's dazzling string arrangement of the Goldbergs, recorded for Nonesuch with the New European Strings in 1995 (and performed here at the late, lamented International Music Festival of Seattle). Sitkovetsky set some of the Variations for full string orchestra and some for a one-on-a-part chamber ensemble, and the result sounds splendidly idiomatic yet stunningly fresh, sort of a Brandenburg concerto thrust into a fourth dimension.

The freest, most brilliant treatment of the Goldbergs comes from pianist Uri Caine, known for his jazz rethinkings of classical standards. On his two-disc set (Winter & Winter), he's interspersed Bach's 30 variations with his own new variations in a multiplicity of styles. It's not pastiche, but the absorption of Bach's sturdy bass line into other genuine musics—gospel, tango, techno, bebop. Caine plays some variations on the piano, but arranges others for period instruments, choir, solo voice, solo cello, synthesizer, and jazz combo—a wide range of colors from both Bach's time and ours. And yet the set has a magnificent unity. It's somehow all Bach—Caine merely expands upon (or explodes) Bach's original concept, which brought together in the Goldbergs a wide range of dance forms and international styles, from drinking songs to a mock opera overture.

 
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