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Keyboard maestro tames Bach

By Chen Nan | China Daily | Updated: 2020-09-02 07:30
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Chinese pianist Lang Lang at a March recital of the complete Goldberg Variations at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, the final resting place of its composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Towering masterpiece Goldberg Variations is tackled brilliantly by undaunted pianist Lang Lang, who brings what he describes as a different approach to a challenging piece of music.

After years of practice, preparation and reflection, Chinese pianist Lang Lang finally presents his version of Bach's Goldberg Variations to the public.

Earlier this year, before the world struggled with the coronavirus pandemic, the pianist made a studio recording of the Goldberg Variations in Berlin. On March 1, he played the complete composition in Wiesbaden, Germany. A few days later, he performed the same piece at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, the final resting place of Johann Sebastian Bach.

"I was very nervous before I gave the first recital on March 1. It's been three years since I have given a solo performance and it was the Goldberg Variations. I couldn't sleep the night before and, after the show, I felt so exhausted, I didn't even have the strength to go to dinner," recalls Lang, speaking from a hotel in Shanghai. In 2017, he suffered an inflammation in his left arm, resulting in canceled concerts and a severely curtailed tour schedule ever since.

"I've been studying this work for more than 20 years, and recording it has been a lifelong dream. When it actually happened, I became part of the piece. It was an unbelievably emotional moment," he adds. "Especially when I performed at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig where Bach worked and is buried, I have never felt so close to the composer."

On Sept 4, the pianist will release a new album, Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations, featuring two recordings of the same piece-a studio and a live version.

He says that he didn't plan to include the live version on the new album, "but the atmosphere in the church was so awe-inspiring".

"What made it even more special was to play the Goldberg Variations," he says. "The moment of playing the piece live cannot be replicated, so I decided to preserve it and present it to a wider audience.

"Releasing both recordings gives me the opportunity to demonstrate different approaches to the work and to reveal the myriad possibilities it presents to the performer."

He also notes that the live version is very spontaneous, whereas in the studio his playing is different-far more considered and reflective.

Bach published the Goldberg Variations in 1741 and today it is considered as one of the best examples of its type. Written for the harpsichord, the work consists of 30 variations and an aria. In the words of American musicologist John Gillespie, the work is "the crowning achievement of the Baroque keyboard".

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