Generosity and humanity without restraint
I have loved Bach’s Goldberg Variations since my teens; it is an essential piece of music for me. Glenn Gould has been THE interpreter, against whom I judged others. Indeed, as I have two recordings, I judge him against himself.
I bought Zhu Xiao-Mei’s 2016 recording then, with some trepidation, having found her through her extraordinary autobiography, The Secret Piano. What she said about Bach, what she revealed about herself in her devotion to, and understanding of, his music, made this listening urgent and compulsory. Would it disappoint? Could she match the perfection I find in Gould as an interpreter?
Oh my. Oh my. I can’t raise one above the other. These are so extraordinarily different, creating such a unique experience within this music, of equal intensity. Profound, visceral, spiritual, hugely reflective, totally engaged.
Listening to Gould, I am brought to stillness, in some glimmering, numinous state. The music is transcendent, touching the divine, taking me to yearning for the ineffable. Music pointing to the dispassionate stars. I would like to be freed from the bonds of matter. This is music which makes tears pour, without strain, without, even, being able to name the emotion.
By contrast, Zhu Xiao-Mei takes me to total engagement and inhabitation of my human beingness. And, whilst I never thought about the gender of the performer with Gould, from the off, Zhu Xiao-Mei’s does feel like an interpretation which is particularly feminine. I was put in mind of the willing surrender of self, the making space for the other, that supremely female experience of pregnancy. I thought/felt the presence of various Artworks depicting The Annunciation, of everything I knew about embryology, the negotiation between fertilised egg and its embedding/inception in the womb. On a spiritual/metaphorical level this has always seemed to me to be an act (even if unconscious) of generosity. Here life, the life of the other, can begin, offered a safe harbour.
This performer effaces herself, she makes room for the music. It is not a performance demanding the listener to marvel at, and admire the pianist (though we do!) Rather, we are asked to marvel at, to admire the composer, to marvel at, to admire how HE speaks, to listen to his language, to hear what he is listening to, to what he has heard and must communicate to us. I understood, from Zhu’s revealing, that this Bach is after all, human too. Deeply spiritual, deeply connecting with ‘That Which Is’ – but doing so by being deeply embedded in matter, embodied, in community. Bach was a husband and a father. The warmth of human, the challenge of human, is all in this interpretation.
With Zhu’s interpretation I found myself embracing the limitations and expressions of embodiment. Not seeking to escape from the chains of matter, glorying in them. How I would have behaved in a live concert hall, I don’t know – but I was on my feet, dancing the dynamic variations, and sensing into the dynamics of breath, heartbeat, blood flow in the more introspective variations. Both yearning skywards, but also grounded, held (happily) by gravity.
No tears flowed, instead, she led me to ‘thoughts that do lie too deep for tears’, an awareness of the divinity within (however one might define it) through its works, through all that is. This god/goddess dwells within us, Pan-theistic indeed.
I have struggled (as I am not a musician) to define the difference between two glorious, miraculous interpretations, and can only do it by their effects upon me, subjectively.
Actually, Zhu Xiao Mei herself – who masters language nearly as meaningfully as she does music, explains exactly what I find from her music, in the CD notes, which include an interview with her by Michel Mollard, who makes this interesting observation, and question
Michel Mollard: Glenn Gould retired from the world in order to deepen his interpretation of the Goldberg variations, whereas you have decided to take the opposite approach by playing the work in public throughout practically the whole of the world
ZX-M : Yes, for me communicating with my audience is crucial. I am playing for them again. It is my contact with an audience that has allowed my performance of the Goldberg Variations to mature, and I have them to thank for that.
She makes space not just for the composer, the music, but also for the listener
Unfortunately I can’t find any extended sections of Zhu Xiao-Mei on a YouTube playing Goldberg, hence these two very short excerpts from various live performances and the documentary on her life and music. The extended Gould YouTube is of his first recording of the works, 1955, taken at some lick. Zhu Xiao-Mei takes almost twice as long to play the Variations through, choosing to play the repeats, and also making something of the silence, pauses between variations
Interesting. I’ve never liked the GVs much (I enjoy lots of JS Bach but not all, and on the whole prefer JC’s work), but you’ve persuaded me I should give them another try in the form of this new recording. I shall of course blame you if I still don’t enjoy them! 🙂
Lady Fancifull said:
Oh dear – given your film genre I shall be gazing nervously down dark alleys expecting to be popped with an ink (as opposed to water) pistol if you don’t enjoy them.
Now IF by any chance you buy a CD from that huge avoiding-paying-our-taxes on line retailer, you MAY find they are still running a free trial of Music Unlimited. After I took a chance on Zhu Xiao-Mei, I got offered a free 3 month trial – I shall use it to do lots of sampling of classical music in order to find preferred versions of things, to buy on CD. The date for cancelling my trial is on the wall calendar already. I do prefer CDs to streaming.
I’m a pacifist, so you should be safe enough down those dark alleys — at least from me.
I found a live performance by her of the GVs on YouTube, so I’ll listen to that at some point and then decide about the CD.
Thank you Lady F. I am woefully ignorant when it comes to classical music, just liking what I know I like (Shostakovich, the 1812 Overture) but you embolden me to explore further… 😀
Lady Fancifull said:
Oh, I am so pleased…emboldened to go further. Actually, there are some great blogs on WordPress, which I stumble on from time to time, my musicians with a passion and skill in explaining/ making classical music accessible. I’ve also been to various concerts where the works are introduced by pointers to things to listen out for. I find myself a little in awe of people’s musical sensibilities from earlier generations – before recording devices. Listeners might only hear a particular orchestral piece once or twice in a lifetime perhaps.
What a gorgeously expressed blog. You’ve inspired me too to give these a listen too, I can sense so strongly from your words how this piece of music stirs and connects you to something *other*, something transcendent. It came across in your review of the book and more strongly here. I think, in essence, you’ve made me want to want to like Bach, which is some achievement. Thank you.
I meant to also add that you can listen on Spotify for free as long as you’re happy to stream. It’s a good alternative to YouTube.
Lady Fancifull said:
Oh, thank you, re your lovely first comment. And thank you too for this information ‘re Spotify. Might indeed help me to decide what cds to end up buying!
I’m also a fan of both of Gould’s very different recordings of the Goldberg Variations and is was with much trepidation that I went to hear Angela Hewitt’s recital of the work a few years back. Any reservations I had beforehand proved to be unfounded – I’d go as far as to say I found her performance transcendent, so I’m intrigued to hear how this version compares.
I am not familiar with much classical music and haven’t spent deep listening time with Bach. I have listened to the Glenn Gould and Zhu Xiao-Mei interpretations of the Goldberg Variations since reading your review. In the first instance, I think I would like to spend more time with Zhu Xiao-Mei’s playing of this piece. I can’t put into words, as you do, how each piece affects me, but this seems to be the one that draws me more into the music at this point.
Lady Fancifull said:
I’m glad she speaks to you Christine