Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
October 29, 2018

Legend has it that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his ‘Goldberg’ variations – the fourth volume from his Clavier Übung – for the young keyboard player Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to play for his insomniac master, Count Kaiserling. “It’s rather hard to believe that this work could lull the Count to slumber,” New York-based Australian pianist Sarah Grunstein told the audience in the Sydney Opera House’s cosy Utzon Room, at her second of two concerts in Sydney this month. Indeed, Grunstein’s forthright rendition of the cycle, played without the score on a Steinway grand, was anything but soporific.

The opening Aria was broadly rendered, in a distinctive, weighty reading with plenty of personality, but it was the percussive first variation – the polonaise delivered with aggressive, punching energy – that set the tone for the rest of the cycle.

Sarah GrunsteinSarah Grunstein. Photo © Peter Schaaf

Bach wrote this work for a two-manual harpsichord and Grunstein obviously has a keen sense of the composer’s interweaving lines and voices, but they were rendered here rather brutally at times, bass lines in particular hammered out with unnecessary power, gentler moments barely registering before giving way to more forceful playing.

It’s impossible not to compare this performance with another recent solo piano recital in Sydney – also marathon-like in its scope – that of Sir András Schiff touring for Musica Viva. Addressing the audience before her performance, Grunstein outlined the important architectural moments in the Goldbergs, but neither in her words nor her playing was she able to bring the level of intimacy and gravitas to the Utzon Room that Schiff brought to the Concert Hall.

That said, Grunstein attacked the work with energy, her playing most effective in the cheeriest variations. She gave a clear sense of the work’s overall structure, marking the mid-point effectively with a pause following the darker 15th variation, before giving us a fanfare-like 16th, while the final of the work’s three minor-key variations, Variation 25 – dubbed the ‘black pearl’ by harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who first recorded the cycle – was a highlight, Grunstein drawing our ears to the haunting movement as the Goldbergs’ centre-piece.

There were moments when the joy of Bach’s music began to truly blaze in Grunstein’s hands, but they too quickly became mired in the work’s technical demands, the recital plagued by stumbles (which Grunstein nevertheless recovered from admirably). Far from sending the listener to sleep, there was a danger to this performance that was quite captivating at times.

Overall however, there was little real delicacy to serve as a counterbalance to the more boisterous playing – particularly in such an intimate space as the Utzon Room. Though there were hints of finer textures beginning to shine through at various points, it wasn’t until the final rendition of the Aria that any magic happened, Grunstein achieving something more quiet and lyrical before letting the last notes fade into silence.

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