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Stick Your Head Into A High Performance Harpsichord

Andreas Staier plays Bach's <em>Goldberg Variations</em> on a copy of this famously grand harpsichord built in 1734 by Hieronymus Albrecht Hass currently housed in Hamburg, Germany.
Wikimedia Commons
Andreas Staier plays Bach's Goldberg Variations on a copy of this famously grand harpsichord built in 1734 by Hieronymus Albrecht Hass currently housed in Hamburg, Germany.

All week, we're exploring J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations.

If the period instrument movement of the last half century has taught us anything, it's how to quibble earnestly about questions like: Should Bach's keyboard music be played on a harpsichord or piano? Some harpsichordists believe it's blasphemy to play Bach on the piano. And then there's Andras Schiff, a convincing Bach pianist, who writes in the booklet notes to his Goldberg Variations recording: "Hands on heart — can you listen to the harpsichord that long?" Touché!

Earlier in our Goldberg Week, Christoph Wolff, director of the Bach Archive in Leipzig, said the quagmire of piano vs. harpsichord wasn't really worth wading into. People should hear the music on both instruments, he said.

And while that seems like a perfectly sensible way to go, harpsichordists — even those like Andreas Staier, who also play the piano — often like to direct attention to the fact that the music loses something when not played on the instrument Bach wrote it for. That is, a two-manual harpsichord, an instrument with two keyboards.

Staier should know. He's recorded the Goldberg Variations on the BMW of harpsichords, a gorgeous replica of an instrument built by Hieronymus Hass in Hamburg, Germany around 1734. Staier says the Hass harpsichords "are the biggest and most richly equipped with registers of any built before the 20th century."

Staier would not deny any pianist the opportunity to play the Goldberg Variations — he says there are many Bach keyboard pieces that work just fine on a modern piano. But the Goldbergs isn't one of them.

"The Goldberg Variations lose a whole level of structure and also intellectual wit and esprit if played on piano," Staier says. "Certain jokes will not be able to come out on the piano. Listen to Variation 17, that's a variation where the two hands run against each other and that is surely a scherzo in music."

Staier, in the audio feature (above), takes us on a tour of his high-performance harpsichord and the Goldberg Variations while musing on both the music and the master who wrote it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.