For the last three years I’ve been attending the annual All Bach Concert at Saint Marks Cathedral in the Capital Hill neighborhood of Seattle.  They have a beautiful pipe organ and wonderful acoustics there and they do a series of organ recitals every year. The final concert of the series is always the All Bach concert which is as the name denotes a concert of works soley by Johann Sebastian Bach.  I really should start attending more of the concert series but making just the Bach concert has been quite rewarding. It appears that next year in celebration of Messiaen’s 100th anniversary that they will be doing two concerts devoted to his works which personally I love, so I’m going to try to make those. But for this year it was only the All Bach show I made and this year it was performance of the Goldberg variations.

This year the featured organist was Daniel Sullivan playing his own arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Normally at these recitals I get to hear a number of pieces from Bach’s vast oeuvre that I’m unfamiliar with. Anyway with even a passing interest in Bach, or for that matter classical music in general has heard the Goldberg variations.  A piece that I’ve loved since childhood I have actually been reengaged with it of late thanks to Richard Egarr’s fantastic historically informed harpshichord recording. Considering the ubiquity of this piece I really can’t imagine that anyone who reads this not being at least of passing familiarity of it. So I’m not going to go into much detail or background on the piece, the incredibly thorough Wikipedia page is recommended for those who want more information in that regard.

The concert began at 7:30pm so as usual I was hard pressed to leave work at a normal hour and still make it there. Shockingly I made it across the notoriously choked with traffic 520 bridge and to the church in a mere 20 minutes from my home arrive 15 minutes early.  I definitely prefer to have a bit of time to relax and read the program before a concert so this was ideal circumstance. I’ve been making a point of picking up a CD from each of the All-Bach organists so I took this chance to acquire Sullivan’s recently released recording of the Goldbergs.

Soon enough Daniel Sullivan was introduced and the concert began.  When transcribing a piece from one instrument to the other there are a lot of choice to be made. Going from the harpsichord to the organ provides quite the panoply of choices when you consider its vast dynamic range, the huge number of stops and voices.  The temptation certainly exists to go to one extreme or the other: minimalist in trying to emulate the harpsichords sound and range, or in the opposite direction fully utilizing that range and all those stops.  I’m happy to report that Sullivan took the wise middle ground. He stuck more or less within the range of the piece only using the immense power of the organs low end for emphases on some of the more dramatic variations. He kept to a set of stops that seemed almost thin for the organ, yet much richer then the harpsichord. At times he’d pull out some stops that I’d certainly not heard before but always in a very tasteful way. In general he’d do this to emphasize the kaleidoscopic nature of the counterpoint on some of the variations. At times these almost clashed which provides something akin to the frisson of a touch of dissonance in an otherwise harmonically straight piece.  All in all the choice of sounds and dynamics was restrained, yet interesting always adding to the piece and never descending into showy gimmickry.

While I don’t think that organ transcriptions of this piece will replace the harpsichord for me I have to say I greatly enjoyed this. The resonance of the church and all the variety and range of the organ are why I love to go to these performances. The maze like qualities of Bach compositions is wholly engaging and a piece like the Goldbergs pushes that to the limits.  Another great All-Bach recital which merely strengthens my resolve to continue my tradition of attendance.