Sampling Bach's bent for variations Harpsichordist's concert Sunday to spotlight flashy, jaunty tunes

January 22, 1998|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It can be great musical fun.

Take a tune, then slow it down, speed it up, fiddle with its harmonies, fool with its mood and change its key. Even play it backward if you want, and see what you get.

Mozart did it. Listen to his "Variations on 'Ah, vous dirais-je maman,' " for example, and hear how the genius took the familiar "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" melody and turned it every which way but loose.

But the theme and variations format, as it is called, is often far more than musical parlor tricks. Entire symphonic movements can be designed in the style. Beethoven took a galumphing little waltz by Anton Diabelli and crafted the "Diabelli Variations," one of the most emotional works in the piano repertoire.

In the mid-1730s, Johann Sebastian Bach set about composing a batch of variations that continues to delight more than 250 years after it was published in Nuremberg, Germany.

This work, the "Goldberg Variations," will be performed Sunday afternoon in the Great Hall of St. John's College by harpsichordist Douglas Allanbrook, a tutor at the college who has been gracing the Annapolis music scene since his arrival on campus in 1952.

Allanbrook will complement the "Goldbergs" with Bach's devilish D-minor English Suite at this 3 p.m. performance, which is free and open to the public.

"The 'Goldberg' is not like any other piece Bach wrote," Allanbrook says. "He apparently never really wanted to write variations and may never have done so if the work hadn't been commissioned."

The story, probably apocryphal, is that a stressed-out Russian nobleman asked Bach for a soothing work that his harpsichordist, a fellow named Goldberg, could play for him to relieve his insomnia.

"Whatever the merits of the story," says Allanbrook, "we know one thing for sure, and that is that Goldberg must have been one damned fine player. These things are hard."

Whether inspired by his own muse or by Count Keyserlingk's insomnia, Bach began the piece with a lulling 32-bar saraband (a courtly dance) as his main theme.

That is followed by 30 wonderful variations in 10 groups of three, TC with the third of each set containing some of the flashiest, jauntiest, most knuckle-busting counterpoint Bach ever wrote.

"It's one delight after another," Allanbrook says. "Some people have the view that listening to Bach is a duty, like going to church. I don't buy that. These are happy pieces that must be tossed off in an Olympian manner."

Such brio might not have done much for the count's insomnia, but surely this most remarkable of all baroque variation sets demands nothing less.

Dare I say it? A super work for Super Sunday.

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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