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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

Goldberg Variations UK
Goldberg Variations USA