Interview: Pianist David Jalbert grasps for the unreachable in Bach’s Goldberg Variations


“Bringing out one voice is not enough. It doesn’t pay homage to everything there is in the music,” says David Jalbert of the Goldberg Variations (Chris Mukula photo for the Ottawa Citizen).

Ottawa-based pianist David Jalbert earlier this year released an impressive new album of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations album on the ATMA Classique label.

He performsthe masterpiece at at Stratford Summer Music recital tomorrow (Aug. 15) afternoon at St Andrew’s Church. Concert details here.

This performance promises to be well worth the drive. It is followed at 4 p.m. by the launch of Colin Eatock’s new book, Remembering Glenn Gould: Twenty Interviews With People Who Knew Him, at Stratford City Hall.

For Jalbert, as for just about anyone working on a stage or in a studio, the key to feeling satisfied with their work is being able to translate what they hear in the head into something they can share with the rest of the world.

Young music students, who have to learn the language of music in the same labour-intensive way as learning any other new language, are often visibly frustrated as the beautiful rhapsodies sounding in their mind’s ear come out in squeaks and pinky-plonks as their fingers scrabble to find the right notes.

This process of bringing imagination and the realisable into line with each other knows no point of arrival. It is a lifelong journey, not a destination.

An extreme example of the forever-beyond-one’s-reach work is the Goldberg Variations, one of the ultimate tests of the interpreter’s art as well as skill.

Even Glenn Gould, the granddaddy of all modern-day Goldberg interpreters, did not achieve this on his own, and his interpretation changed substantially over the course of his life.

Violist Rivka Golani recently told me that her friend, the late harpsichord player and University of Toronto professor Greta Kraus, had sworn her to secrecy about multiple visits from Gould, who was looking for advice on how to perform Bach.

Over a coffee, Jalbert describes the two-year process of learning, absorbing and shaping the Goldberg Variations ahead of a three-day recording session at the Palais Montcalm in Québec City.

“It’s important to take them out in public over a long time, so that they would have the opportunity to grow. That’s not something that happens on its own,” he says. “It’s one of those pieces that, when you start working on it, you already have an idea, because everyone grows up listening to this piece. You have your own conception of it – or think you have a conception of it – before you get your fingers in it.”

Are the original idea and final, recorded interpretation close or different?

“Probably close – although the way there is convoluted,” Jalbert replies. “It’s amazing how complicated it is. I wish there was more of a direct link between what you see in your head and being able to execute it right away.

“With music that’s comfortably written for piano, there is a much shorter time span between having a clear conception in your head – when you have a good technique – and being able to achieve it on the piano. But, with most Bach, it takes a while. It’s finding the right sound, the right amount of pedal and, of course, the variations and the repeats of the variations add a very creative aspect.

“For each variation, you have two sections, each of which is repeated. You have to come up with a plan to vary the repeat, to make it more interesting, to change the mood, the articulation, the dynamics. So, of course, you don’t have a lot of that planned out ahead of time. A lot of that is trial and error.”

Jalbert’s life was further complicated by a full-time teaching position at University of Ottawa, where he is also coordinator of the chamber-music programme, and having to split his time between Montreal and Ottawa.

He says some days would involve five to six hours at the university, followed by another five hours of practice on the piano.

“I spent a lot of very late nights just going back to the piano, well after the neighbours would have thought that I should, just to try something else,” he recalls.

“You know, you’re lying in bed and you have this other idea – hey, what if I …. so you go and try it. Sometimes it works, but, most of the time, it doesn’t,” Jalbert chuckles.

His most trusted advisors were his own ears.

“It’s so hard to have an ear outside of yourself when you are performing,” the pianist explains. “The newer a work is to you, the greater the distance between your own perception of your performance and what it sounds like from the other side. So I record myself quite a bit.”

It’s a necessary evil, as far as Jalbert is concerned.

“It’s awful and miserable. No one wants to hear themselves,” he says. “That’s one of the great truths about classical playing: Most people don’t like their own playing when they hear it. It’s just like most radio announcers hate their voice. It’s always difficult to do, but I always made myself to record a new ornament or articulation, just to prove that it’s not just all in my head.”

One of the remarkable things about Jalbert’s interpretation is the overall balance between all of the voices in Bach’s music.

He calls his process of getting there “hyper-memorization,” where he would play each section over and over, highlighting a different voice each time. “That’s the fun of working with counterpoint,” he adds, alluding to a natural affinity for music with an architectural base.

“Bringing out one voice is not enough. It doesn’t pay homage to everything there is in the music,” Jalbert continues. “So, if you learn to control one of the parts through a whole section, then you learn to control another part through a whole section, then you try to have them both doing something interesting at the same time, listening to both at the same time.”

The pianist, who studied organ for two years, likens it to working with singers, “You have to balance each of these lines, have them singing, then adding yet another layer on top of that. It’s choir management, really.”

“My favourite music of Bach’s is his choral music, the St. Matthew Passion, the B-minor Mass,” Jalbert admits. “That’s his most extraordinary stuff. Everything has to sing.

“It takes a long time for a brain to get comfortable with all of this stuff.”

This interview was previously published here in April, 2012.

John Terauds

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