Andreas Staier, Keyboard Loverby Lucie Renaud
/ April 1, 2000
Andreas Staier is an exception in the classical music world: an artist with an international career as a performer on both the harpsichord and fortepiano. His exceptional virtuosity and sensitivity have enabled him to keep a double career going, and he moves with apparent ease from Bach to Mendelssohn and solo to ensemble playing. La Scena Musicale spoke to him from Cologne recently on the anniversary of Bach's birth.
Love at first sight
Staier was born in 1955 in Göttingen, Germany, where he trained as a pianist. His almost accidental encounter with the harpsichord came in his early twenties. Staier had been introduced to basso continuo while with the Hanover conservatory baroque orchestra. He decided to study harpsichord for a term in order to learn the special technique of harpsichord playing. "I fell in love with the sound of the harpsichord and became passionately enthusiastic about the repertory. Of course, as a pianist I knew Bach's work, but I was bowled over by the discovery of English virginal composers."
The fortepiano was a gradual discovery. The range of sound-colour was what attracted and held him. The harpsichord and fortepiano are in fact complementary, he feels. "Our perception of Mozart or Beethoven is transformed when we become really familiar with the repertoire that precedes them. Beethoven's Diabelli Variations appear in a new light once we know William Byrd's variations, as well as Bach's Goldberg Variations."
Taming the masterwork
Staier will be performing Bach's Goldberg Variations on the harpsichord in public for the first time in Montreal at the end of April. He has long dreamed of interpreting this fascinating work, but only now is the dream coming true. The reason for choosing the harpsichord is self-evident. "In the Goldberg Variations, Bach used the possibilities offered by the instrument's double keyboard. The work is totally suited to the harpsichord, whereas trying to play it on the piano is like attempting to square the circle." It takes complete mastery of the harpsichord's technical demands to extract the full richness of the instrument.
Staier still has difficulty imagining the Goldberg Variations in concert. "It would have been unthinkable in the eighteenth century to include thirty variations, all in D minor, in the same program! To prevent the work from being drab, you have to use a variety of musical coloration." It is also important for both performer and audience to recognize the links between variations. "The stability of the work's structure must be preserved and the relationships among the variations made clear. A general line or progression will emerge, and this will maintain interest, tension, and attention — much needed because the variations push the listener's patience to the limit."
Mastering the Goldberg Variations took time, and this is something Staier wanted to achieve before playing the work in public. He plans to let his approach mature even further before recording it.
Staier admits he hasn't listened to a recorded version recently because he wanted to maintain an independent approach to the variations. Asked about Glenn Gould's controversial recording, Staier said, "Glenn Gould was one of the century's greatest talents, with unheard-of potential, but he developed in an unfortunate way. I like some of his early recordings very much, Beethoven's Eroica Variations for example, so spontaneously played and with such refinement. However, I believe he killed the Goldberg Variations by trying to be too cerebral. In attempting to reach perfection he achieved a crystalline sterility that says nothing to me."
Teaching the harpsichord
Staier taught harpsichord for eight years at the Basel Schola Cantorum. In his view, "Teaching isn't successful unless it makes the student independent." His philosophy is particularly original in one respect. "It's very important to think about composition and to experiment with it. The composer's approach to a work must be fully grasped. What is the significance of the various voices, or of the dissonances? Baroque music isn't divinely inspired; it's anchored in ordinary things, a workaday process. Bach's toccatas, for example, are improvisations on simple harmonies. You have to understand the music from the inside and take it apart in order to appreciate how it works."
Staier is now devoting all his time to performance. A varied repertoire enriches the spirit, he feels. He began working on Beethoven's Diabelli Variations at the same time as the Goldbergs, reconnecting with a childhood love of Beethoven's repertoire that seemed to have faded, but is now stronger than ever. He has also just received a work for fortepiano by a rising young French composer, Bryce Pauzé. It combines complex twenty-first-century rhythms with nineteenth century tone colour.
"I can't do everything, but I'm able to achieve a number of things, each one representing a facet of my personality," says Staier. As a keyboard master and a great interpreter, drawing inspiration from several centuries of music, perhaps Andreas Staier will do everything.
Translated by Jane Brierley
Montrealers can hear Andreas Staier perform on April 25 and 26, at 8PM, at salle Pierre-Mercure.
The Goldberg Variations
Bach's masterwork is the fruit of his mature years, as are his Passions (St. John and St. Matthew) and the B Minor Mass. The story about the work's composition is worth retelling. Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, one of Bach's brightest pupils, was working for Count von Keyserlingk of Dresden, who suffered from insomnia. Goldberg sometimes played all night to soothe the count. Bach was asked to write "quiet" and "somewhat cheerful" music for this purpose.
The composer responded to the challenge brilliantly. The thirty variations are at times symphonic in scope, and at other moments achieve the summit of harpsichord virtuosity. Bach attempted to transform the art of variation in the same way that he had raised the fugue to new heights in The Well-Tempered Clavier.
The saraband theme, taken from a collection that Bach made for his wife, Anna Magdalena, is treated in a novel way. Rather than concentrating on the melodic line, Bach strengthens the bass line and harmonic structure. The variations are grouped by threes, with the third of each group being a canon. The thirtieth variation, the "Quodlibet" ("As You Like It," a sort of musical joke), is a lively juxtaposition of two popular melodies of the time.
A composer of lesser genius would soon have become monotonous in attempting thirty variations in the same key (D minor). Bach, on the contrary, gives us an extraordinary range of expression through a variety of techniques, including rhythm changes and the use of different forms and technical devices, such as grouping by threes, which allows the variations to enhance one other.
The resulting masterwork laid the foundations of variation form for generations of future composers.
Lucie Renaud / J.B.