Sunday, January 03, 2016

Spirit of the Goldbergs

I'm not quite sure how this came about, but last week Angela Hewitt came round and played the Bach Goldberg Variations on my beloved Bechstein to us and a few friends in the living room.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? One of World's Great Bach Players pitches up and gives you a private concert, and afterwards you cook risotto primavera. What's certain is that this setting, an ordinary room where the listeners are at close quarters with the performer, is far and away the best way to listen to music on an intimate scale. Even so, this was a house-concert with a difference.

You might remember a piece I wrote about St Mary's Perivale, the 12th-century church in west London, a year or so ago. It was about "sacred space" syndrome: an atmosphere that a special place bestows on a performance. I wouldn't normally count our living room as a sacred space, though, so last week's magic had nothing to do with that. No, this was about Bach, and about Angela's particular mastery of the Goldbergs.

Back in the days of Wanda Landowska, Myra Hess and Rosalyn Tureck, great female soloists were sometimes termed 'high priestesses' of their art. It's worth pausing to think about what that really meant. It implies a pure, holy-ish approach to the music: at the keyboard these phenomenal performers would be perceived as handmaidens, if you'll excuse the slightly ghastly term, to the sacred spirit of Bach, Beethoven et al. Today this is an unfashionable idea.

Angela Hewitt. Photo: C M Yamanoue
Still, something extraordinary happened during the 80-or-so minutes in which Angela held us all under Bach's spell. It's not easy to articulate this. Around variation 9, one could sense a subtle change in the air. By 13 the stillness was absolute; and by the time the final toccata-style variation before the Quodlibet emerged as if on full organ, the illusion - if illusion it was - that we were experiencing some kind of spiritual visitation that was blessing us could not have been stronger if we could see its presence in the room. At the end I think we were all in tears.

You can attribute this "state of grace" (I write as an atheist, by the way) to many things. You can put it down to Angela's supreme control of technique, pace, concentration and drama - without which nothing would have happened. You can suggest a "sacred fire" descends while certain artists play certain works and that it's beyond anybody's control; either it happens or it doesn't (a view I've heard espoused about the playing of the violinist Jelly d'Arányi - of whom I'll be writing a lot more soon). You can attribute it to Bach himself, to the incomparable construction and inspiration of the music - though this requires the interpreter to bring it to life. Add to that the listener's state of heightened awareness, arrived at through intense focus and concentration, akin to the nature of a deep meditation. You can put it down to a combination of all these factors, while additionally admitting that on a further level it is close to miraculous.

I mentioned the sense of "divine visitation" to Angela afterwards. She nodded and said that, yes, this can sometimes happen with the Goldberg Variations...

The ultimate issue is that only music can do this, and only the very greatest music, performed by someone who is entirely at one with it, artistically and technically, and only when it is played live and shared, perhaps congregation-like, with others. That's why we have and need live musical performance at the ultimate level, and that's why all those much-discussed peripheral issues (what to wear, when to clap, bringing in drinks, etc) will remain peripheral, because they're not relevant (we wore everyday clothes, we had no desire to make any kind of noise until the very end and we had some wine, but rarely touched it while she played).

This kind of experience is rare, but it's possible. It brings another dimension into life that might otherwise be missing. If that is a sacred fire, and its summoner a high priestess, so be it. It's the essence of what musical experience is all about.