Queensland Conservatorium Theatre
Saturday June 11, 2022
This latest gambit in Musica Viva‘s 2022 season gives us Lam and Grabowsky exercising their talents on the supremely accomplished Bach variations, which used to be rarely performed but currently attract all sorts of keyboard players. You can blame Glenn Gould for the attraction of the Goldberg Variations to contemporary pianists, the Canadian musician releasing his parameter-splitting recording in 1956 – since when things have never been the same. Of course, it’s more convenient to work through the score on a two-manual harpsichord (not to mention oh-so-authentic) so that intersecting lines don’t sound awkward. But what you lose in nerve-tensing clarity, you gain in dynamic and expressive potential.
Lam gave us the work as written, and she saw the task through with minimal trauma. On this occasion, that was her brief: to deliver the work ‘straight’, with technical prowess and interpretative insight. Grabowsky was required to improvise on the opening Aria‘s content, to transform Bach’s material into whatever harmonic, melodic or rhythmic shape occurred to him on the spot. I’d anticipate that, in later performances on this tour (Brisbane was the first), he might repeat himself; more than probable, given the nature of Grabowsky’s first dealings with the melody after he’d played it as written.
Throughout her account, Lam gave us a deft interpretation that took advantage of the piano’s powers to sustain and to offer toccata-like brilliance. Her reading of the initial Aria was slow-paced and restrained dynamically – a regular pavane. So her attack on the first variation sounded all the more startling, a full-blooded demonstration of hefty two-part counterpoint. I wasn’t certain about the player’s control during the early unison canon where the counterpoint faltered. Later, Variation 12’s canon at the fourth held a moment of dislodgement in its first half,
But Lam’s attack on the Ouverture and the following Variation 17 was direct and powerfully couched; in fact, the night’s lack of repeat observations turned the former into a too-short experience, the 3/8 second-part passing all too quickly. You couldn’t ask for a more lucid and fair reading of the alla breve Variation 22, each line individual and perceptible throughout. Later, the group of Variations 27 to 29 served as a masterclass in accelerating excitement and energy with sparkling finger-work in the right-hand demi-semiquavers of 28 and an exhilarating interplay at 29’s bars 9 to 14, 17 to 20, and 27 to 30.
The only mis-step that caused a hiccough in these final pages came in the bierhaus-reminiscent Quodlibet, before another calm restatement of the Aria brought us back to base. I’ve heard this last performed as a strong celebration, the dynamics amped up to turn the penultimate sinuous weaving of bars 27 to 31 into a chain of thumping assertions. Lam chose the upper path, giving us just the poetry and inbuilt elegance.
My problem with the night was that the recital started late; don’t know why – I was in my seat on time, everybody else turned up promptly (as far as I could tell), no obvious crises were on show in the foyer, and no smoke was seeping from backstage. Whatever the cause, Grabowsky didn’t get on with his Variations exercise until later than anticipated, the procedure made more delayed by a post-interval address from Musica Viva’s State Manager Paul McMahon, jiggling our charity bones through an EOFY reminder. The outcome was that, due to transportation necessities in getting back home, I had to leave before Grabowsky had finished.
The jazz musician’s concern was not that described by one patron returning to her seat who assured her companion that Grabowsky was going to go through each variation in a sort of cosmic re-assessment. His real concentration was on the Aria (which Bach left pretty much alone, using its bass as his creative fulcrum) and he restated it for us before embarking on what sounded like two variations of his own, carrying on in Bachian style. Well, that’s one way to get things rolling.
Then began the mystery of watching and hearing Grabowsky offer his own mutations. For a good deal longer than I’d expected, the path was followable, without any breaks into free-fall or a completely different musical dimension. Indeed, as the pianist grew into his own fluency, the structure occasionally dissipated, only to be brought back into line eventually. This is a large part of Grabowsky’s craft, of course, an aspect of it that for me has lain undiscovered; television apart, I’ve only seen him live twice – once with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra playing the solo in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and on an earlier occasion in the Melbourne Town Hall directing the Australian Art Orchestra (which might have been a performance of Passion). Not to mention his score for the opera Love in the Age of Therapy which I heard 20 years ago and of which, in my memory, there is left not a rack behind.
What struck me about this improvisation process was its normality and placidity. Grabowsky introduced plenty of 7th and 9th chords as well as upper-line work that sometimes bordered on doodling. In fact, the impression I gained at some spots was of a tinkering rather than a full-scale construction. Most of the enterprise’s intrigue came in hearing the pianist move from one harmonic mesh to another, in particular an extended sequence in E flat, from which key Grabowsky was in no hurry to extricate himself. Mind you, he was well on the way by the time I had to go, having landed in G minor and taking his own sweet time getting away from that into the home-key major.
That’s the point, of course: the improviser is under no obligation to rush but can milk a sweet spot for as long as s/he likes. It’s a different kind of baroque. Where Bach gives rein to his overpowering skill in manipulating notes across mathematical and lyrical frameworks, ornamentation hanging from the framework like grapes from a trellis, Grabowsky moves into a creative sphere where, if there’s nothing actually in excess, you can yet hear the borders sliding towards being unmoored on the smoothest of anchoring surfaces. To his great credit, this player manages the classical/jazz divide with equilibrium, neither side being forgotten or eclipsed in the process. Not that you’d expect anything less, especially when you call to mind his decades of exercising that specific musical muscle.
I’ve never had much patience with those who pose the question: what would Bach have thought of it? There’s no possible answer because the only finding is circumscribed by impossibilities. Do you think of Bach as an innovator, or as a culminating point? Is he the Baroque’s musical summa, or can you trace the developmental path through his sons to the geniuses-in-waiting of 1732 and 1765? What this night proves is that we can’t leave him alone; everybody in the Western musical world sources Bach, the well-spring of his – and our – craft. You emerge from this recital (even early) with great satisfaction that both executants have given the best of themselves in two versions of this towering construct.