Editors’ Notes Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations have provided milestones in the careers of so many keyboard players, and now Lang Lang, arguably the most high-profile pianist on the planet, has chosen to put his mark on them. But it was no spontaneous decision. “I fell in love with the Goldberg Variations when I saw a video of Glenn Gould playing them,” he tells Apple Music. That was in 1992, when Lang Lang was 10, and the Gould recording had been made in 1981. (Gould’s classic first recording dates from 1955 but, like quite a few people, Lang Lang is drawn more to the later version.) “I was overwhelmed by the way Gould plays Bach,” he says. “I still remember it. I never knew Bach could be played this staccato; could be this slow; could be this shockingly beautiful and sometimes very odd at the same time. And the contrasts—huge contrasts! Some parts he plays so fast, it’s almost like listening to a digital computer sound. It completely overturned all my beliefs about Bach.” And so, still a teenager, Lang Lang learned them.

The Goldberg Variations, published in 1741, comprise an Aria followed by 30 variations of extraordinary complexity and ingenuity before the Aria returns to close the work. They last more than an hour and are one of the greatest works written for the keyboard—the keyboard here being the harpsichord. But pianists have long played the work, though even Lang Lang admits that there are parts where it’s hard to forget the harpsichord’s character. “Look, there are a few variations with such a treble sound—like Variation 15—that’s simply not a ‘piano sound.’ Even today, when I was just practicing a little bit, it just doesn’t sound ‘piano’ at all.” For him, it required a back-to-basics approach. “We have to learn this piece from the perspective of Bach's style, so that’s why for the last three years I’ve worked with [the harpsichordist] Andreas Staier,” he says. “There were a lot of things that I wanted to do, whether it's playing with more legato, or with more ornamentation, but I didn’t really have an answer to the question, ‘Why am I doing it?’ That’s why I always felt insecure about playing Bach’s Goldbergs, because I didn’t know whether what I was doing was correct or not. Bach is not a Romantic composer, so you can’t just rely on your emotions. This is such a naked piece.”

Here, Lang Lang offers two different performances: one studio-made and one recorded live in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach had been Cantor for 27 years. “The original plan was only for a studio recording. I didn't actually think that the live concert recording would be workable for release. But I really enjoyed playing in that space: I found the acoustic quite unique. It doesn’t sound like a concert hall. It was almost as if a time machine was involved and it’s kind of a natural ‘vinyl’ sound. And if you have people in the church, too, it’s a much better sound. And when you are next to Bach's grave, of course, magic happens…” Lang Lang’s Goldbergs are writ large, full of dramatic contrasts and with some very extreme tempos—the celebrated Variation 25, for example, takes three or four minutes longer than it does with most other performers, but it’s entirely convincing given Lang Lang’s poise and concentration. There’s clearly a strong musical personality behind every note. The two performances are not dramatically different, though in general the live one is faster. “Live, I’m much more spontaneous,” Lang Lang says, “whereas in the studio there were many decisions to make, and I had a lot of time to think about things.”

The pianist has often spoken about seeking out a narrative behind the music he plays, and the Goldberg Variations come with their own, probably apocryphal, backstory: Legend has it that the variations were written for an insomniac Russian aristocrat, Count Kaiserling, and were played to him, as he lay in bed, by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to encourage him to sleep. Lang Lang is happy to annex elements of the story. “The Aria is there to put you to sleep, but I think that Bach soon gave no more thought to sleep and just created this wild fantasy! Variation 16 would certainly wake you up, and near the end, from Variations 26 to 29, there's no way that you can sleep. I think it’s almost like a wake-up call!” The return of the Aria after this immense journey is not just a masterstroke but one of the most extraordinary moments in all music. “When you get to the Aria, your fingers still have the memory of everything that’s gone before,” says Lang Lang .“You just let it come down, let the music drive you. It’s like a sailing boat at the end. After this huge journey, you just let the wind carry you. That’s it!” And player and audience alike are changed forever.

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
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