Lars Vogt at Symphony Center, Chicago Review- The pianist presents Brahms and Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”

German concert pianist and conductor Lars Vogt; photo by Gioriga Bertazzi

On January 27, 2019, German pianist Lars Vogt performed a program of Brahms and Bach as part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Center Presents Piano Series, at Orchestra Hall in Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, Chicago. The Brahms was lovely, intimate and lush, the execution of the Goldberg Variations a remarkable achievement. Vogt’s playing is contained, controlled, elegant; the emphasis is always on the execution of the music “at hand”.

– Johannes Brahms Three Intermezzos, Op. 117, 1892

– Johannes Brahms Four Piano Pieces,Op. 119, 1893

In the final phase of Brahms’ creative life, he composed a wealth of short piano pieces, publishing them in four collections (Opp. 116 to 119).

Vogt recorded Opp. 117 to 119 on EMI in 2004; about that project Andrew Clements for The Guardian noted “Lars Vogt is the perfect kind of thoughtful, unflashy pianist for an emotionally contained world; his playing never attempts to impose his own interpretative ideas on music that has its own organic coherence.” The pianist projects a quietude, a sense of internal calm and a centered transparency that are most compelling.

The 3 beautiful intermezzi are filled with a quiet expressiveness. Eloquently played and phrased by Vogt, they come across as adult lullabies. The first contains a memorable, poignant melody; the second is exquisitely delicate and graceful in its smooth succession of tones; and the third, although somber, is rich and filled with syncopation. Indeed, Vogt has been caught on a You Tube video describing his affinity for the “darkness” of Brahms, whose pieces he has mastered, toured and recorded often.

In the glorious, timeless miniatures of Op. 119, the pervasive nostalgia is perfectly balanced against a conventional-seeming harmonic language that actually continues to reinvent itself. Vogt presented the first three pieces in a masterful attacca approach leading into the final and lovely E flat Rhapsody that closed the work and the first half of the program.

Pianist Lars Vogt; photo by Gioriga Bertazzi

– J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, 1741

In reviewing the pianist’s 2015 Ondine recording, Gramaphone noted, “Lars Vogt has responded to the overarching quality of the Goldberg Variations as a 75-minute continuous piece, with its astonishing variety of mood, rhythm, style and sonority….he seems to me to bring qualities of freshness and joie de vivre to the Goldbergs that have often been much less marked”.

Vogt accomplished a profoundly moving version of the stunning aria and its 30 incredible variations, which follow the bass line. Every third variation is a canon, following an ascending pattern, with the intervening variations also arranged in a pattern. With poised or flashing, always nimble fingers he ranged from the meditative quality introduced in the first half of the program, through dancing measures and romantic, colorful melodies to the ultimately profound return of the Aria and resolution; this was an account to be reckoned with.

The segments fit together separately with the clock-like precision for which Bach is known, but also seemed to combine into a vast inevitable musical sequence whose harmonies and themes were always and obviously connected. Vogt persisted throughout with a palpable and unshakeable concentration, undistracted, lacking any showy mannerisms. Of course, there were emphasized details and colorful emphases, but the themes were traced and followed with surpassing clarity.

The legend of the 14 year old budding piano virtuoso Goldberg, for whom the piece was commissioned being summoned from sleep to play a variation for Count Kaiserling may be apocryphal, but to play all 31 portions memorably is a feat worthy of the tale! The title page, translated from the German states “Composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits”.


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