For the small audience of about 100, it was a rare opportunity to hear the work performed in its entirety on this third concert of the 33rd Rochester Bach Festival.
As the story goes, Bach was commissioned to compose this Aria with 30 Variations for his pupil, J.T. Goldberg, because Goldberg's patron, Count Kaiserling, suffered from bouts of insomnia. Goldberg would be summoned to play the harpsichord pieces for the Count, whose restless spirit could then be calmed and uplifted during a sleepless night.
But soporific the Variations are not, which Harbach so perfectly demonstrated as to leave one breathless. Hand crossed over hand as the notes flew, skipped, rippled and shimmered in the spellbinding intensity of Variation No. 14. And this was only one of a great variety of moods Harbach expressed throughout the work.
Variation No. 21 was pensive and sober, and although the tempo was slow and more free, the musical tension never slackened. Nor was there ever a lapse in the eloquence of declamation in No. 16.
Harbach's finely spun out chromatic spires of sound in Variations Nos. 20 and 26 were a sheer delight, especially in No. 26, where they seemed to gear one up for the concluding variations. In fact, an overall sense of architecture was projected throughout. It's probably no accident the Bach composed the 13th and 25th variations to have the longest durations; they come in the middle and near the end of the entire work. Enhanced by Harbach's unfaltering stamina, they were evidenced as pillars of proportion.
Also astonishing was the variety of timbres and shadings Harbach drew from the harpsichord, from distant sounding treble voices to a full-bodied pluckiness in No. 13.
The Bach was preceded by two shorter works on the first half of the program. William Babell's transcription of Handel's aria, O Vo'far guerra, from his opera Rinaldo, and classical composer Maria Hester Park's Concerto in E-Flat Major. The concerto was pleasingly light fare, while the Handel was a showcase for Harbach's sense of drama and flawless technique.
One can only imagine what it must be like for Harbach as she performs with such perfection, to run music through one's system this way. The rest of us can only be content with being thrilled and fascinated.
Marcia Bauman is a composer and free-lance writer.