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No Great Music Without Great Tension

Anthony Tommassini, classical music critic for The New York Times, invites us all to a mini-lecture at the piano on dissonance. With a series of examples by well known composers, Tommassini elaborates on one of the most crucial components in Western music. Read more >>

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Author Topic: What do I program with the Goldberg Variations?  (Read 4571 times)
thalberg
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« on: June 27, 2005, 08:36:49 AM »

I just played a recital that consisted of the Goldberg Variations and nothing else.  I felt that in preparing these for my first public performance, I shouldn't divide my attention (Or, to be more honest, I don't have the mental capacity to divide my attention)
.  But now I know them and I'm comfortable with them, and I think next time I play them (6 months from now) I'd like to add something else to the program.

But it's such a problem!  Do you give people more Bach?  If not, what else would complement such a monumental work? And do you play the Goldberg's first or last on the program?  How do you make sure the audience doesn't get worn out?

So far, the best thing I could come up with was to open with Goldbergs, then take a break, then play the Bach/Busoni Chaconne in D minor as a large encore.

Advice, please!
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Goldberg
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« Reply #1 on: June 27, 2005, 06:33:39 PM »

Wow! How fantastic to hear that you played the Goldberg Variations. That must have been one helluva thing!  Grin

Anyway, I wouldn't really recommend this unless you happen to have the resources, but once I saw the Goldbergs performed twice--once on a harpsichord and once on a Steinway D, with a lecture before and a lecture between the two (after an intermission). You might not believe it, but it was a surprisingly effective recital! No repeats, though, thank goodness--except maybe one or two spots, if any.

However, for the variations I have considered a few different recitals, though I probably will never be able to play any of them. First, I thought it would be super neat to program the Goldbergs in the first half and the Rzewski Vars in the second half, for a pretty extreme contrast in styles, but with comparable brilliance in each piece. But, it would also be extremely rigorous for a non-musical audience of any degree (not to say that the Goldberg Vars alone isn't, but at least it's shorter, and of course as with all var. sets, it's easy to listen to because there are so many "different" pieces, which I theorise makes it easier for a non-musical crowd to listen to, although the musicians of course will appreciate that each "piece" is not in itself different). You *might* consider starting with Rzewski and then playing the Goldberg Vars, but my instinct tells me it should be in chronological order not only because of the historical significance but because of the mood and statements of each piece.

Generally, I would avoid doing any more Bach, though. If I wanted to do so, I would probably play a program that consisted of some two- and three-part inventions, French Suites, possibly a toccata, and maybe something a little more dramatic like the Bach/Marcello Oboe Concerto in D minor (BWV 974)--no P&Fs of course. And, personally I would steer clear of that particular Busoni transcription, although maybe something like the D major, Eb major, or indeed C major Bach/Busoni organ pieces would not be such a bad idea.

However, I still wouldn't use Bach as a first choice of contrast for the program. Maybe even if you just went to other Baroque composers like Scarlatti, Couperin, or Handel (I'm thinking keyboard suites), all of whom, again, have very agreeable and "engaging" pieces, as in, they are not necessarily fugues, canons, and so forth, which will inevitably grate on a non-musical mind (though, certainly for us we could probably listen to/play them for hours, but then that's just bragging!). A Haydn sonata could fit in nicely too, if properly chosen (don't have any off the top of my head). If any of those options were chosen--a brief example is a program starting with two Scarlatti sonatas, a few Couperin pieces and a Haydn sonata--I would keep the first half fairly short and light and then, indeed, use the Goldberg Variations in the second half.

Finally, I do believe that the Vars./Op. 111 by Beethoven could work fairly well in a recital without running the risk of "overdoing" it. Op. 111 would be the second half in that case, and no encore would be required, although it could be a neat idea to play a "pre-recital" encore to set the stage, if you'd like, perhaps with a charming little Couperin piece or a trifle by Krebs or Rameau or...whomever. Might be kind of a neat idea...just a 2-minute long fling before the Aria starts, to get everyone settled.
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Eusebius_dk
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« Reply #2 on: June 27, 2005, 10:35:11 PM »

Are you playing them with or without repeats? With repeats I think they would stand perfectly alone. My teacher plays them without repeats, and when he's playing them in recitals he often pairs them with the Chopin 24 preludes, op. 28 - Bach before the intermission, Chopin after.

My former teacher heard Murray Perahia play them in Rome a couple of years ago, and he opened the recital with a few Bach/Busoni Chorale Preludes, it might be a bit easier task than the Chopin Preludes!  Smiley

Congratulations with playing the Goldbergs, it must be some of the hardest music you can ever find, but also some of the most divine...
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Floristan
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« Reply #3 on: June 27, 2005, 10:56:43 PM »

...well, if you've got stamina and aren't doing the repeats in the Bach...

Brahms Op. 24 (Variations on a theme by Handel)  Wink
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« Reply #4 on: June 27, 2005, 11:08:46 PM »

Oh, yeah, I will say also that no matter what, I personally wouldn't advise playing the repeats, even if the piece was to stand alone. I might "pull a Gould" and repeat certain variations (for instance, the faster ones, or if you were Gould, the ones you like the most), but generally I would not.

But, as always, that's just me!
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lostinidlewonder
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« Reply #5 on: June 28, 2005, 02:41:11 AM »

After like almost 1 hour of the variations people will either be in spiritual ecstacy (if they really understand the music) or be on the verge of sleep. Either way, both parties would like to be shook out of their state, I would play something very Romantic, or from the 20th Century after it.
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apion
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« Reply #6 on: June 28, 2005, 03:44:58 AM »

...well, if you've got stamina and aren't doing the repeats in the Bach...

Brahms Op. 24 (Variations on a theme by Handel)  Wink

Brahms Op. 24 (Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel) is one of a small handful of solo piano works that can measure up to Bach's Goldberg Variations ...........
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thalberg
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« Reply #7 on: June 29, 2005, 08:46:45 AM »

Thanks.  You all have some great ideas.  The Brahms/Handel Variations would actually be quite feasible because I already know them.  I haven't played the complete Chopin preludes, but I see that they'd go really well with the Goldbergs.  They'd take me a while to learn! What might be kind of nice also would be to do the Goldbergs first, then start the second half with some biting 20th century piece, then end with something lush and Romantic.   

One of my "trademark" pieces is the Berg Sonata, but something tells me it just doesn't go with the Goldbergs. 
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serge1paris
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« Reply #8 on: June 29, 2005, 01:59:59 PM »

Hello Thalberg

I am just starting to study the Goldberg and  I am  wondering about the best method to climb the Everest.

At this stage I have been reading the Aria and the first three variations ( I play them with repeats !!!)

How did you work on it ? how long did it take to reach performance level Huh

Thanks for help.  It would be a great great pleasure to join the Goldberg Club

Serge

PS : Beethoven last sonata with the arietta and variations would be the best bet for me  (or the Diabelli Variations if you want to be more dramatic)
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thalberg
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« Reply #9 on: August 10, 2007, 07:18:16 AM »

Hi Serge!

Sorry I took so long to reply.  I don't know what happened.

Anyway, how did I work on it?  Well, first of all I got the Henle version.  I started with the Peters, but there were no fingerings, and with this piece you need fingerings!!

Second, I calculated out how many measures I'd have to learn per day if I wanted to learn the piece in something like 4 or 5 months.  Then I really perfected that small section at the beginning of my practice time when I was fresh.  It was only something like 8 measures per day.  Then I went back over what I already knew, thinking about memorization and interpretation.

It took me about 18 months to get to where I felt that I could perform it.  But it didn't need to take that long--I was also working on a dissertation, plus my piano teacher sucked a lot so I got no help.

Anyway, now that it's been two years, how are the Goldbergs coming along for you?

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furtwaengler
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« Reply #10 on: August 10, 2007, 08:51:25 AM »

So, Thalberg do you have your program set? Smiley
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rallestar
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« Reply #11 on: August 10, 2007, 10:38:13 AM »

I don't have any new good program suggestions - There are plenty already - But why not end with Bach? If I were listening to a recital like that (And I sure would go to a recital with such a program), I'd want the Goldbergs last. It's just one of those pieces that when you've listened to, you don't want to listen to music again for a while. Maybe that's just me. Appassionata feels like that to me, too.
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counterpoint
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« Reply #12 on: August 10, 2007, 11:25:10 AM »

I would play something super modern in combination with Goldberg Variations, some pieces of Berio, or even Stockhausen  Cool

It would be great to play them at random places between any of the Variations, so the people are always in a state of alarm  Grin
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iumonito
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« Reply #13 on: August 10, 2007, 02:19:08 PM »

Here are some ideas, ranging from bizarre to unfeasible to sensible:

1)  Mozart Fantasia and Sonata in C Minor; Bach Goldberg Variations
2) Webern Variations; Bach Variations
3) Bach Variations.  Bach additional canons on the first eight bars of the ground.
4) Bach Variations.  Commisioned work, get a friend to write a few variations in a modern style on the same ground as the goldberg.  If you are friends with Kapustin or Pablo Ziegler, the better.
5) Bach Variations.  Bach-Busoni arrangement and selection of the variations.
6) Bach Variations.  Sorabji Sonata No. 4.
7) The little Italian variations.  Then the Goldberg.
Cool Berg sonata.  Bach variations.
9) Ligeti Musica RIcercata, Bach Variations.
10) Bach Variations; Ravel Gaspard; Stravinsky Petrouchka.
11) Bach Variations; Beethoven Diabelli variations
12) Same as 11, followed by Rzewski's the people united will never be defeated

I was going to keep going to 32, but I gotta go, you get teh idea, you can play them with anything.

I like them by themselves, with repeats and a long pause before number 16.
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pianistimo
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« Reply #14 on: August 10, 2007, 03:29:54 PM »

the diabelli variations (32 variations in c-minor) sounds like a great idea for a second half - if people are into the idea that they will hear two sets of variations.

i hear that the 'theme' is from a sarabande in the anna magdalena notebook.  why not play that, too - for starters.  explaining how simple themes were expanded upon - both in the goldberg variations and the diabelli with ground bass.

from a site where glen gould had program notes, i copied this:

'the goldberg variations can be divided into ten sets with the third variation in each set arranged as a canon.  the first canon repeats at the unison, the second at the second, and so forth for nine canons.

the final three variations end with a quodlibet that quote two folk tunes - one of which is 'cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, i'd have chosen to stay.'

thirty variations maintain the same bass progression and rhythm found in the sarabande - but digress from the melody.

the goldberg variations use every technique known to the time (baroque) such as the invention, fughetta, french overture, trio sonata, toccata, and free variation.'
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cmg
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« Reply #15 on: August 10, 2007, 04:43:48 PM »

Thanks.  You all have some great ideas.  The Brahms/Handel Variations would actually be quite feasible because I already know them.  I haven't played the complete Chopin preludes, but I see that they'd go really well with the Goldbergs.  They'd take me a while to learn! What might be kind of nice also would be to do the Goldbergs first, then start the second half with some biting 20th century piece, then end with something lush and Romantic.   

One of my "trademark" pieces is the Berg Sonata, but something tells me it just doesn't go with the Goldbergs. 

Great ideas, blintz.  I agree with you about the Berg.  Incredible piece of music, but it doesn't seem right on ths program.  How about opening the second half with Debussy "Estampes"?  Sort of like a nice sorbet to clear the palate after the transcendental experience of the Bach. (The Chopin "Preludes" would scare the bejesus out of me, personally.  A few of them are just too treacherous!)  Then close with Brahms "Handel" to get 'em screaming and cheering.  (Toss your house keys into the audience during the standing ovation when they start throwing underwear onto the stage!)
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jakub_eisenbruk
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« Reply #16 on: August 10, 2007, 05:36:00 PM »

Well, I have some ideas, maybe:

1. Le Jardin Parfumé by Sorabji.
2. Maybe one of Chopin's Ballades?
3. Herma by Xenakis.
4. Rachmaninoff, maybe one of the preludes.

Jakub Eisenbruk,

Mexico City.
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amanfang
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« Reply #17 on: August 10, 2007, 06:51:50 PM »

the diabelli variations (32 variations in c-minor) sounds like a great idea for a second half - if people are into the idea that they will hear two sets of variations.

The diabelli variations are not the same thing as the 32 variations in C minor.
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« Reply #18 on: August 10, 2007, 07:50:51 PM »

Philip, you should look into Alan Street's writings on the Goldberg.  Very cool.  The set tracks rhethorical principles from Latin jurist Quintilian on how to present a legal case.

So another option would be to play the variations and read the portions of Quintilian (or Perry Mason, for that matter), and perhaps the criticism pieces a guy Scheibe wrote against J.S. for writing antiquated and complicated music.

My favorite still is just by itself, with repeats, and a big break before 16.
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thalberg
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« Reply #19 on: August 10, 2007, 08:16:43 PM »

Oh goodness, I owe everyone here a big apology.  Last night I just could not sleep, and I was really out of it from tiredness, and for some odd reason I thought it would be a good idea to respond to this thread even though it's two years old.  Now that I'm awake and lucid, I wonder what I was thinking.

To give an update, this recital never happened because the job didn't really work out and then I decided on a career change out of music.

Last night when I was tired, I think I just felt bad poor Sergei had asked a question that I never answered.  He's probably learned them and performed them by now.
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thalberg
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« Reply #20 on: August 10, 2007, 08:17:55 PM »

By the way everyone, you all had some good and creative ideas! Smiley
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cmg
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« Reply #21 on: August 10, 2007, 08:47:53 PM »

******************PIANO STREET ARCHIVE MESSAGE********************

TO:  Thalberg

FROM:  Serge

DATE:  June 29, 2006

Dear Thalberg,

It has been a year and I've given up waiting for your reply on the Goldberg Variations.  Couldn't wait any longer, so I've given up piano to become a taxidermist.  If you get to Paris, look me up and come see my latest work -- I preserved and stuffed Chopin's cat.  It's very cute! 

Yours,

Serge (no hard feelings . . . I'm happy with my career choice.)
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ramseytheii
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« Reply #22 on: August 10, 2007, 09:19:19 PM »

Philip, you should look into Alan Street's writings on the Goldberg.  Very cool.  The set tracks rhethorical principles from Latin jurist Quintilian on how to present a legal case.

So another option would be to play the variations and read the portions of Quintilian (or Perry Mason, for that matter), and perhaps the criticism pieces a guy Scheibe wrote against J.S. for writing antiquated and complicated music.

My favorite still is just by itself, with repeats, and a big break before 16.

Wait, what?  Please tell us more!

Walter Ramsey



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ramseytheii
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« Reply #23 on: August 10, 2007, 09:26:32 PM »

Hello Thalberg

I am just starting to study the Goldberg and  I am  wondering about the best method to climb the Everest.

At this stage I have been reading the Aria and the first three variations ( I play them with repeats !!!)

How did you work on it ? how long did it take to reach performance level Huh

Thanks for help.  It would be a great great pleasure to join the Goldberg Club

Serge

PS : Beethoven last sonata with the arietta and variations would be the best bet for me  (or the Diabelli Variations if you want to be more dramatic)


I think Goldbergs are one of the most ultimately fun pieces to practice.  I recommend first of all getting the Kirkpatrick edition (Schirmer) because he gives fingerings, and he gives ways to perform the difficult hand-crossing arabesques that were much easier on a two-manual instrument.  For Variation 11, for instance, he shows you the original, and above it he gives his version divided conveniently between the hands to minimize awkward crossing.

I performed this once with the Shostakovich quintet.  it was not particularly wise; I've heard it performed with Diabelli and I was bored out of my mind... I am always torn on a piece like this, because I feel the repeats should be there, but it can be a truly boring experience if it isn't ornamented properly; but I don't approve of the way most people ornament, because all they do is add trills.  But Bach clearly showed in his suites that the way to ornament was not add trills, but to really ornament the melody so that the notes are different, not just tacked on trills or apoggiaturas.

To learn the Goldbergs, I definitely do not recommend starting at the beginning and just going, you have to make it fun.  Starting at the beginning it will seem like it never ends.  Learn all of the canons first, for instance; then practice all the arabesques (the variations preceding each canon); then practice all the genre pieces (the variations preceding each canon).

I think a good solution to repeats could be, repeating just the canons.  I don't know - then it sounds so naked!  But with all the repeats, it rarely sounds interesting.  I think two good recordings are Perahia, and Feltsman.  They really deal with the repeats head-on.  Schiff's latest recording also is bold with the repeats, and I respect it for that, but it is so willfully eccentric and tastelessly played that I can't recommend it.

Just some disorganized thoughts on the Goldbergs.

Walter Ramsey
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thalberg
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« Reply #24 on: August 11, 2007, 05:15:00 AM »

******************PIANO STREET ARCHIVE MESSAGE********************

TO:  Thalberg

FROM:  Serge

DATE:  June 29, 2006

Dear Thalberg,

It has been a year and I've given up waiting for your reply on the Goldberg Variations.  Couldn't wait any longer, so I've given up piano to become a taxidermist.  If you get to Paris, look me up and come see my latest work -- I preserved and stuffed Chopin's cat.  It's very cute! 

Yours,

Serge (no hard feelings . . . I'm happy with my career choice.)

LOL!!!!  You're hilarious.  Very cute.   Grin Grin Grin

Did you get my pm?
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thalberg
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« Reply #25 on: August 11, 2007, 05:22:25 AM »


I think Goldbergs are one of the most ultimately fun pieces to practice.  I recommend first of all getting the Kirkpatrick edition (Schirmer) because he gives fingerings, and he gives ways to perform the difficult hand-crossing arabesques that were much easier on a two-manual instrument.  For Variation 11, for instance, he shows you the original, and above it he gives his version divided conveniently between the hands to minimize awkward crossing.

I performed this once with the Shostakovich quintet.  it was not particularly wise; I've heard it performed with Diabelli and I was bored out of my mind... I am always torn on a piece like this, because I feel the repeats should be there, but it can be a truly boring experience if it isn't ornamented properly; but I don't approve of the way most people ornament, because all they do is add trills.  But Bach clearly showed in his suites that the way to ornament was not add trills, but to really ornament the melody so that the notes are different, not just tacked on trills or apoggiaturas.

To learn the Goldbergs, I definitely do not recommend starting at the beginning and just going, you have to make it fun.  Starting at the beginning it will seem like it never ends.  Learn all of the canons first, for instance; then practice all the arabesques (the variations preceding each canon); then practice all the genre pieces (the variations preceding each canon).

I think a good solution to repeats could be, repeating just the canons.  I don't know - then it sounds so naked!  But with all the repeats, it rarely sounds interesting.  I think two good recordings are Perahia, and Feltsman.  They really deal with the repeats head-on.  Schiff's latest recording also is bold with the repeats, and I respect it for that, but it is so willfully eccentric and tastelessly played that I can't recommend it.

Just some disorganized thoughts on the Goldbergs.

Walter Ramsey


Love these thoughts, Walter.  One of the only times I actually read an entire long post by someone and enjoyed it.   If you're into SERIOUS ornaments, check out Charles Rosen's recording of the Goldbergs.  His ornaments are truly fascinating. Better than anyone else's.  His playing is decent--nowhere near the quality of Perahia--but the recording is worth it just for the ornaments. 

I'll have to look at the Kirkpatrick edition.  Variation 11 gave me fits until I made some decisions about it.  I wonder what his version looks like.

Repeating only the canons, by the way, is actually a great idea IMO.

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« Reply #26 on: August 11, 2007, 06:26:24 AM »

Goldbergs on the first half, Ralph Shapey's Fromm Variations on the second. You may be the only one left in the hall, but what a program! Wink
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« Reply #27 on: August 12, 2007, 09:23:18 PM »

I just played a recital that consisted of the Goldberg Variations and nothing else.  I felt that in preparing these for my first public performance, I shouldn't divide my attention (Or, to be more honest, I don't have the mental capacity to divide my attention)
.  But now I know them and I'm comfortable with them, and I think next time I play them (6 months from now) I'd like to add something else to the program.

But it's such a problem!  Do you give people more Bach?  If not, what else would complement such a monumental work? And do you play the Goldberg's first or last on the program?  How do you make sure the audience doesn't get worn out?

So far, the best thing I could come up with was to open with Goldbergs, then take a break, then play the Bach/Busoni Chaconne in D minor as a large encore.

Advice, please!

If you are playing for the audience's approval, I don't think many people would like to hear the Goldberg Variations, at least all 30. I personally love them, but seeing how most people are, no.

Nick
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« Reply #28 on: August 12, 2007, 10:01:58 PM »

I agree.  The Goldberg Variations are BORING.  Why would Bach do that to people?  I mean, a person can only take so much of that one-dynamic polyphony before the mind starts wandering.  Personally, I would just play the Goldberg theme and your two favorite variations, then perhaps play something lighter for the rest of the program.
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« Reply #29 on: August 12, 2007, 10:40:32 PM »

thanks, amanfang!  i haven't played the diabelli and was assuming it was 32 variations instead of 33 variations in whatever key it is in.  have to try it out sometime!
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thalberg
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« Reply #30 on: August 12, 2007, 11:21:49 PM »

I agree.  The Goldberg Variations are BORING.  Why would Bach do that to people?  I mean, a person can only take so much of that one-dynamic polyphony before the mind starts wandering.  Personally, I would just play the Goldberg theme and your two favorite variations, then perhaps play something lighter for the rest of the program.

LOL!!!!!!!  This reminds me of the time my mother suggested that I play television themes at my recital.
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