Towards the end of his life, Johann Sebastian Bach composed three major works into which he poured his lifelong passion and talent for intricate counterpoint and musical mathematics. While The Art of the Fugue, A Musical Offering and the Goldberg Variations represent the culmination of his art, the last two works, with their accretion of myths and mysteries, have challenged performers, listeners and musicologists literally for centuries. Enter British harpsichordist Richard Egarr.

A member of the ever growing category of musicians dedicated to matching composers and authentic contemporaneous performance practices of their music, Egarr came to Duke to display the results of his battle on two fronts: with the Goldbergs and Glenn Gould. Why Glenn Gould? In 1955, Gould came out with a characteristically quirky – many thought exquisite – piano interpretation of the Goldbergs. Over the years, the Gould recording has sold like hotcakes. Given the tendency of listeners to regard as standard whatever interpretation of a work they happen to have at home, the Gould interpretation has become one of the performances to beat. But Bach’s title page to the published work specifically states that it was designed to be played on a two-manual instrument – thereby excluding the fortepiano, much less the modern piano. Egarr performed on Duke’s William Dowd, a copy of a Mietke instrument closely resembling the harpsichord Bach traveled to Berlin to purchase for his patron and for which he composed the spectacular Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. In his remarks from the stage, contrasting the piano and the harpsichord, Egarr emphasized that the harpsichord is actually a “keyboard lute,” requiring a more legato style of playing to bring out the flow of melody and the contrapuntal lines. A double manual was essential for this kind of playing because, among other things, it releases the player from having to overcome the overly intricate and unnatural fingering required to play this piece on a single manual harpsichord – or a piano.

Then, there’s the more stubborn challenge of determining what the Goldberg Variations mean in the more aesthetic and ephemeral sense. This da capo Aria, flanking 30 variations, in no way conforms to the variation concept in vogue since the Middle Ages: a set of increasingly flamboyant variations on a pre-existing melody designed to showcase the virtuosity of the performer. Nor does the cute little story perpetrated by Bach’s first biographer, Nicolaus Forkel – that Bach composed a deliberately soporific piece at the request of a certain insomniac Count Kaiserling to be played by a keyboard wunderkind named Goldberg – appear to be true.

What we know we have is a published work whose translated title reads: Keyboard Exercise Consisting of an Aria with various Workings Out for Harpsichord with Two Manuals. The original “Aria” (or tune) consists of 32 measures with the harmonic rhythm of one change per measure, and is followed by 30 different variations plus the repeat of the Aria at the end. The variations are divided into ten sets of three, the last of each set being a canon, where each canon increases by one interval (i.e. unison, second, third, up to a ninth). Variation 30, instead of being a canon at the tenth, is a quodlibet, a set of four popular tunes of the day set over the harmony of the Aria. Pretty clever but potentially dry aesthetically.

The challenge to the performer is precisely the opposite of the Goldbergs’ legendary goal. And here is where the Egarr concert succeeded. The program notes and a pre-concert lecture by Duke musicologist Alexander Silbiger clearly explained the construction of the piece, information absolutely essential if the listener is to be intellectually engaged and aesthetically delighted. Since the variations were never intended for public performance, Egarr seems to have decided to forego technical fireworks in favor of a more intellectual approach.

Those conditions being admirably fulfilled, Egarr’s performance was a crystal clear interpretation, with extraordinary attention to maintaining the integrity and clarity of the contrapuntal lines. He also handled the timing between the variations effectively by frequently eliminating the pauses between variations so that one could hear the continuity of the groupings. His insistence on playing all the repeats allowed listeners to catch subtleties and distinguish the voices of the more difficult canons in the course of the performance.

Egarr is also an expert on Baroque tunings, and one of the highlights of his performance was his retuning of the harpsichord to “Bach’s original tuning.” While most people suppose that the point of the 48 preludes and fugues of The Well Tempered Clavier indicate that Bach supported our current practice of equal temperament (all 12 intervals equally spaced), an American musicologist, Bradley Lehman, has demonstrated that Bach actually used a variant of a Renaissance tuning system adjusted to accommodate all 24 major and minor keys. The effect was at first strange, but the new kinds of dissonance that emerged in this familiar work were fascinating to hear.

The performance was also exciting to watch! The movement and flow of Egarr’s fingers, especially in the variations for two manuals, accentuated the beauty of the musical lines and reinforced the singing quality of the instrument.

We had some differences of opinion, however, about certain aspects of the performance. Joe felt the interpretation was not “warm” enough and that Egarr had over-ornamented the already written embellishments of the Aria, making it difficult for newcomers to the piece to fix the theme in their minds. Joe also had trouble with the adagio 25th variation, which he felt dragged. In both these examples, Egarr adopted the practice of delaying the downbeat in one hand, a kind of rubato common during the period. Elizabeth got off more on Egarr’s attention to the structural and intellectual principles behind the piece, insisting that the delight is not so much emotional as it is intellectually exciting. We were unanimous, however, in our opinion that Egarr has put Glenn Gould in his place. His total commitment to his interpretation made it a convincing and meaningful addition to the repertory of performances.