New York-based Australian pianist Sarah Grunstein returns home for recitals in the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room in September and October. She spoke to Limelight about her programs.

You’re performing the Goldberg Variations in Sydney in October – when did you first come into contact with this music?

I think that piano students who are serious about Bach know his keyboard literature – not necessarily playing it all, but certainly learning about it. In the piano studio of my mentor at the Sydney Conservatorium, Nancy Salas, we were exposed to a huge range of keyboard literature and it was then that I became knowledgeable about the Inventions, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the suites, the partitas, and his four volumes of the Clavier-Übung of which the Goldberg Variations form a part.

Sarah GrunsteinSarah Grunstein. Photo: supplied

How has your relationship with the Goldbergs evolved since then?

One of my greatest delights is finding something in a musical work that I may not have seen the last time I played it (whether last year or yesterday). The Goldbergs contain a myriad opportunities to find something new: to explore a new rhythmic twist; to bring out from the piano the quasi sound of an organ, or a pizzicato string sound; to bring out the intimacy of a clavichord sound, or perhaps an oboe; to find something new in the tenor voice, to find something orchestral, to find yet another dissonance between keyboard ‘voices’ that may bring a new, poignant tension into the expressive qualities of a variation …

On another note, no pun intended, in its spiritual essence and completeness the Goldberg Variations was the only work I could play for two months following September 11, 2001. Living in New York, it was the only thing that made any sense to me in the whole world. It was at that time, in fact, that I knew I wished to perform this work.

Who are the pianists who’ve most influenced or inspired your approach to the variations?

The Goldbergs may be viewed as an encyclopaedic essay of Bach’s keyboard style. So my approach to the Variations is akin my approach to all of Bach’s works. In that, there is one person in my life who has influenced me beyond any other: Nancy Salas, my mentor at the Sydney Conservatorium, who was a pianist, harpsichordist, fortepianist, clavichordist, and cembalist. From her I learned, while very young, how to read and play the music of Bach and Mozart. (I might add that Miss Salas was just as likely to present her students in an evening of Bach Suites or Mostly Mozart as in an evening of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos or Stockhausen Klavierstücke.) Playing the inventions, fugues, suites, toccatas, partitas of Bach, and the sonatas, fantasies, and concerti of Mozart, I studied the execution of appoggiaturas, mordants, dotted rhythms, binary variants, improvised cadenzas, and the like.  As I “absorbed” these features into my performance of 18th-century music, my understanding of the function and meaning of 18th-century notations developed. This process was supported by my occasionally playing the harpsichord, clavichord and fortepiano in Miss Salas’ home, to hear the music’s sound and to feel its touch, and our occasional reference to the treatises. Miss Salas’ goal was not to teach an “authentic” performance practice – after all, we were playing Bach on the piano – but to teach the music’s meaning and context.

For you, what are the biggest challenges of performing these works?

There are three basic challenges: musicianship, keyboard technique, and stamina.

What are some of the things you like to keep in mind when negotiating historical research and contemporary performance practice?

I pursue these questions: How are we to understand the score? What can the score tell us about the musical work, its history, its composer, and how does it inform our performance? I am interested in the history of musical sounds, the inquiry into how a sound was heard in its own time, and how this history can inform and inspire the musician – in our performance, pedagogy, and thought. As a pianist, I strongly believe that our understanding, interpretation, conviction, and therefore performances, are shaped at least as much by the questions we ask, as by the answers. My performance is the result not of answers, but of the questions I’ve asked. It’s through these questions that our playing becomes malleable, and our interpretative palette is ever growing.

You’re playing Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann on your first Sydney program in September, how do you feel these three composers sit together in a concert?

The first Sydney Opera House concert will be a program of three of the composers I most love to play: Beethoven’s Sonata in E major, Op. 109, Brahms’ Fantasien Op. 116, and Schumann’s Fantasie in C major, Op. 17. Each work is highly structured, yet also highly improvisatory, each in a vastly different way. It is the improvisatory qualities that suggest the poetry and pliability of Romanticism, yet also hark back to the influence of the 18th-century.

What are the challenges (and the pleasures) of moving between the three?

I’m enthralled by the history of musical sound. The range and sound of the piano changed significantly even in Beethoven’s own lifetime, let alone between 1820 (when his Op. 109 was composed) and 1890 (when Brahms’ Op. 116 was composed.) I’m interested in the orchestral nature of Beethoven’s piano writing, and enthralled by the first movement, which to me is a written-out improvisation. It’s interesting to explore how Beethoven treats the piano. Brahms in his Op. 116, calls these seven ‘fantasies’ which connotes imagination. These seven short works are highly emotional and expressive in vastly contrasting ways. By contrast, Schumann’s Fantasie Op. 17 had originally been named Sonata and was originally written as a dedication to Beethoven. Yet he references his Schlegel incipit to Clara, saying she is the hidden tone. Isn’t it wonderful that the same work can behave as a chameleon?

What do you hope the audiences at these concerts will come away with?

One of the fascinations in music, indeed in art, is that in any composition there is always something more to be found, bringing us to a deeper sphere than initially meets the mind, the ear, and the eye. A piece of music, for me, is like a friend. The more I get to know my friend, the more there is to understand. And then I bring my friend to my audience, so my audience can get to know my friend. My relationship with my music and the communication with my audience I experience during a concert is a deeply intimate sharing. I hope that my listeners might just hear, or get to know something a little more than they did before. The Utzon Room of the Sydney Opera House is a most beautiful venue for this intimacy.

Sarah Grunstein performs a recital of Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann in the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room on September 23, and the Goldberg Variations in the Utzon Room on October 29