Concert review: Paul Grabowsky and Andrea Lam

Two of our finest pianists play one of music’s finest pieces.

When Johann Sebastian Bach penned the magnificent aria that would later become known as Goldberg Variations, BWV988, he probably had no idea it would still be played and loved almost 300 years later. Indeed, it is rightly regarded as one of the finest works in the canon of keyboard music, and the composer’s own masterwork, and is as challenging and inspiring today as it was then.

For this special Musica Viva recital, two of Australia’s finest pianists, Andrea Lam and Paul Grabowsky, interpreted and played the Goldberg from quite different perspectives. Lam played it as writ, albeit with the unique idiosyncratic touches of a pianist at her acclaimed level of musicianship while Grabowsky mixed it up with a jazzman’s flair for improvisation. That said, he did begin his musical life as a classical pianist and this is familiar territory for him.

With no fanfare or introduction, Lam took to the darkened stage of the Adelaide Town Hall and began to play, illuminated by a single shaft of light. As she played, the lighting gradually changed hue, subtly reflecting the changing moods of the music. This had a gentle but evocative effect, perhaps not even noticed by the audience but just enhancing the experience. A plinth with a large arrangement of dried flowers was the only set decoration, with the grand Town Hall organ as the perfect backdrop.

The Goldberg is in essence a sarabande, a musical form popular in the Baroque era. It feels familiar and yet is technically more complex than it sounds. The lightning speed and complex passages with convoluted hand-crossings and rapid changes make intense demands on the pianist.  

Lam showed herself to be a fine pianist, playing with extraordinary clarity and leaving just enough air between the variations for the audience to catch its collective breath. As the aria came to its final close she paused for just a moment’s reflection at the keyboard before standing to receive her richly deserved applause.

After interval, Paul Grabowsky took to the stage to play his improvisations on the Goldberg Variations. It was here that we really appreciated the sarabande form as it came to life under his vigorous touch. This was Bach but not as you know it, played with an accomplished jazz flair and a rich palette of colours and moods. And indeed, Grabowsky does know his Bach, saying he has played the great composer’s works regularly throughout his musical life.

The program notes tell us that this is a genuine improvisation – not a ‘pre-arranged’ improvised piece –  and so each performance will be different, but how that musical difference manifests, we will never know. And each one must come in at 40-minutes to match the original score as played by Lam.

Read: Exhibition review: World of Wonder, Margot McKinney

It was only at the encore that these two fine pianists appeared on stage together to give us a brief ‘Bach four-hander mash-up’.  And this was really the one disappointment of the evening – it would have been wonderful to have more opportunity to see Lam and Grabowsky playing on stage together, with two pianos, each one responding to the other and showing the full contrast in style and tone.

Musica Viva is to be applauded for bringing this new style of performance to concert halls around the country and giving audiences the chance to see two soloists of remarkable calibre.

Andrea Lam and Paul Grabowsky performed for one night only on 15 June 2022 at Adelaide Town Hall on behalf of Musica Viva Australia. They will be touring to Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle and Barragga Bay (NSW).

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.