Low light picks out a lone figure in a darkened auditorium as the translucent aria to Bachs Goldberg Variations rings out from the piano lucid limpid almost liquid a stream running halting darting over stones smooth as polished ivory. Classical artist Andrea Lam is playing the original Baroque masterpiece at Perth Concert Hall in a double bill on Monday with jazz legend Paul Grabowsky for a Musica Viva national tour. Its an idea born 15 years ago at Perth Festival when Grabowsky stepped in lastminute to play an improvised response to the Goldberg an idea now with its own momentum.
On stage the groundswell emerges a steadily descending bass sets the scene for 30 variations changing tack through diverse genres and forms but always anchored in the 32bar series a jazz standard of its day. Sudden attack like a peal of bells holds sway for a moment before settling to a more sedate measure then launching into elaborate effervescence left hand dominant at the last. Bachs infinite imagination unfolds in contrapuntal lines each hand running its own race then resolving to an athletic right and steady accompaniment sets of three stanzas giving a tactical logic to the strategic whole.
Lam notes that Bachs harpsichord had two keyboards putting the hands at odds on a modern 88key concert grand yet with quicksilver touch she negotiates every corner. Sudden flights of fancy in the treble as bass dances attendance break into downhill runs clockwork in precision and pace calming again to a meandering melody with contrasting bass.. Dominant left hand leads off a canon formal in cadence then picking up pace modulating to minor mode before stepping back in ornate splendour.
Contemplation dawns in soulsearching melody over slow bass right hand now pealing so smoothly it almost defies notation then a cascade of notes a waterfall of sound bubbling and gurgling at the base. and begins again feeling its way back to the start point. The last variation a mashup of popular songs brings Bach into focus as a living being before folding back into the ethereal aria to close returning as if in a romantic novel life lived and loves lost back on home turf though mellowed by the experience.
Bachs work was an act of devotion and the Goldberg has a theological air what scholars call a chiastic structure venturing out and back the pilgrim transfigured by the journey. Lams crystalline clarity opens a window on the soul of a master transfixing the hall with transcendence and wonder. A pindrop pause holds sway before Brava! a lone voice bursts the dam of admiration and praise.
Grabowsky cuts a familiar avuncular figure on stage ambling into the light to caress the keys and unleash the aria this time with an inflected rubato suddenly breaking with tradition in denser chordal progression and walking bass setting his own pace.
Just as Bach used the idiom of his day Grabowsky ties in jazz and a kaleidoscopic palette of complex even atonal classical options. If the first half of the bill was a journey to the heart of Bach this is a vision of the return leg bringing the Baroque genius to life in a 21st century ambience of rainbow aesthetics.
Grabowsky draws on diverse resources including the full chromatic spectrum of the octave in major and minor mode. Where Baroque and subsequent eras deemed defined characteristics for each key signature jazz idiom says literally anything goes. Played without pause there are clear references to the original but no seams between forms and sequences the episodic flow of Bachs original now a constant stream exploring the full bandwidth of contemporary piano.
Grabowsky promised a homage to Bach as the great improviser — from a jazz musician there is no greater compliment — and the possibilities are endless in a world without stylistic boundaries perhaps the greatest gift music can offer.
Where Lam summoned the art to speak for itself Grabowsky refashions the icon in the moment to fresh and constantly diverting effect. Elements of tradition persist in contrapuntal canon and fuguelike passages and the same fractal quality also asserts itself ever tuneful with similar flashes of humour in quotations and echoes of wellknown phrases.
The technique is essentially modern robust and florid compared with Lams intimation of the harpsichord but also finds moments of equivalent clarity and calm amid the everrolling stream. A quiet sequence tolls out in the highest register then descends through glassy tones to warmer yet still transparent chords before reprising the aria — as before changed by the journey with another pindrop pause at the close before applause and cheers. Finally the two artists share the Sarabande from Bachs French Suite No.5 a fourhanded mashup of styles to unite their two worlds humorous to the last.