Sarah Grunstein Plays Bach's Goldberg

Tony Ling
6th Nov 2018

To this day, I still think one of the most amazing pieces any beginner pianist can learn is Bach’s Prelude No.1 in C major. It’s simple, in common time, no pesky key signatures, and can make every parent feel good about investing their first half grand on their kid’s piano lessons. But aside from simplicity, the iconic classical composer (and organist wooo) Johann Sebastian Bach, is known to be quite complex and technical for his time. Whilst he mostly bolstered the contemporary music of his time, he wasn’t afraid to be slightly hipster (like many good composers should) for the 17th century, utilising four-part harmony and modulations that certainly wasn’t always usual for his peers.

The Goldberg Variations is a celebration of almost everything that makes Bach who he is. It’s also bloody hard. Goldberg was originally written for the harpsichord which was a two-keyboard instrument. So you can imagine what an ambitious undertaking this would be for a single piano, with a single person at the helm. From the very beginning of these 30 variations along with beginning and ending Aria, you hear things that would make any musician’s skin crawl. Clefs changing midway only for a few beats, multiple voicings, so many hand crossings, and moments where you think the pianist would just have to make a concession to the sheet music in order for it to be played.

Thankfully though, we had the amazing Sarah Grunstein who is a long time Steinway artist, graduate of Juliard at both bachelors and masters level, and just an incredible pianist and soloist with too many accolades to name in her veteran music career across the western world. From the moment she stepped on to the stage, her presence commanded the room with a soft yet resolute voice providing the backstory to some of the most notable variations of this one and a half long concert event. It’s also incredibly nice to actually know the context to some of these pieces which is complimented by how well told it was by Grunstein. In fact, one has to wonder if she somehow memorised the whole speech as she was impeccably articulate and rhythmic in her entire talk of around 15-20 minutes of storytelling.

Moving along to the performance, it’s seriously hard to point a fault at this lady. Aside from the nit-picks from the most pedantic of trained classical musicians, Grunstein played masterfully as her hands moved across the octaves of the piano in an almost trance-like dance acting as if it’s just another extension of the piano. Even when moments of peril signify with what seems like impossible crossings of arms and hands, Grunstein demonstrates the epitome of left and right hand independence for any aspiring pianist. It is a marvellous sight to behold. If you can see it.

The Utzon room is a cute and acoustically vibrant venue space. However, when you have over six rows of seats on ground level nestled together surrounding a single performer and her piano, the people that aren’t in the first couple rows will definitely feel like they are missing out on their pianist. The ceiling of the Utzon room isn’t very high but I feel like it can still manage even a bit of elevated seating to give people in so many rows much more of a vantage point to the intimate concert they paid for.

There are so many gems of prowess to be had here. Variation 16’s Overture had some seriously formidable four-part voicings that was a spellbinding thing for the ear to hear in the actual room of the pianist. The iconic and bittersweet melody of Variation 25 is all the more haunting when you notice how many grace notes there are everywhere. My personal favourite is the opening and ending being the Aria, and the Aria da Capo. A beautiful and resonant melody filled with wonderful flourishment of mordents and arpeggios that gives you a sense of hope but also a moment of reflection.

Although many scholars have argued that The Goldberg Variations was just a deliberate tool for Bach to prove how awesome he is with technicality rather than resonant melodies, it would be naïve to argue that there aren’t some very fine moments of music to be had here in a plethora of variations. If you want Bach’s magnum opus though, you may still want to go for that good’ol Mass in B Minor.