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Bach: Goldberg Variations - Britten Sinfonia

Bach: Goldberg Variations - Britten Sinfonia

Harmonia Mundi  HMU 807633

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Bach: Goldberg Variations (arr. Sitkovetsky)

Thomas Gould, violin
Britten Sinfonia


On this recording, the Britten Sinfonia's Associate Leader Thomas Gould directs the ensemble in Dmitry Sitkovetsky's beautifully realized and heartfelt arrangement for strings of Bach's great keyboard work, The Goldberg Variations. Sitkovetsky penned the transcription in 1985 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Bach's birth. It was inspired by Glenn Gould's remarkable 1981 recording of the work, and the transcription is dedicated to Gould's memory.

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Review by John Miller - June 21, 2015

Rows of leaves decorate the front cover of this disc. They are from Ginkgo biloba, a "living fossil" which appeared first 270 million years ago, and is still present, unchanged, and not just in its Eastern native forests but also in gardens planet-wide. The designer of the disc's artwork might have seen a parallel to J.S. Bach's famous Goldberg Variations BWV 988; written back in 1741 and therefore musically also a fossil, one which also not just survived but is certainly thriving.

Several works held through the ages are held in the greatest awe by musicians as holding unparalleled loftiness of spirit, together with supreme musical demands. First, players must understand the fashionable expressive elements of the high Baroque of Bach's later years, with its hint of Classical idealism. Second, study of the work's magnificent but sometimes enigmatic architecture and formal beauty, which demands energy and technical brilliance for performance and recording. In modern times, the Goldberg Variations have become a venerated cultural treasure, and every worthy keyboard player is required to make a recording (or several) of which there have been (or are) hundreds of discs, on media from vinyl to SA-CD and Blu-Ray.

Musicians who do not play harpsichord or piano are naturally jealous of their colleagues. They want the pleasure of playing the Goldberg Variations themselves. For this, some form of arrangement is required. There is no musicological restriction, as Bach himself was a master arranger, both of his own pieces and those of others. Arrangers have no specific restrictions. The fact that Bach supplies very little in the way of dynamics and tempi means that these must be judged by the arranger/player, whose imagination would already be active in deciding which instruments would make a successful version of such a well-known jewel of the Arts. Here are just a few of the variants: Canadian Brass, harp, organ, guitar, accordion & harmonica, chamber orchestra, Les Violons du Roy & continuo, string octet, string trio, harp and piano, Jazz Quartet, 5 saxophones & 4 double basses and in modern times, MIDI. You can find some of these listed on SA-CD.net.

Strings are obvious candidates; as several individual players can voice Bach's complex canonic contrapuntal lines more fluently than on a keyboard. Contrary to common thought, it is the bass notes and not the opening Aria theme itself which is the object of variation. All the thirty-two pieces are built upon the same thirty-two-note ground bass and its implied harmony (first encountered as one per bar in the opening Aria), the rhythm of which is maintained throughout the work. The fact that the ground bass line is always decorated melodically, and never appears in what-might-be-called the "original form", becomes one of the main features of the variations. The sustaining power and deep, rich tones of cellos and basses make the ground bass more obvious than in the harpsichord and piano, while the upper violins and violas often supply the ornamentations. Variations mostly are bipartite, with two repeats, and it is noticeable that Gould takes all repeats, carefully following Bach's architecture.

There have been several arrangements with strings, as noted above. The most successful from the C20th is Dmitri Sitkovetsky's celebration of the 300th anniversary of Bach's birth - a string trio, later expanded to a string orchestra (1985). His version benefits from his experiences as a first-class soloist and an experienced maestro, and it radiantly expressed his own love and deep respect of the Variations. Apparently, Sitkovetsky was also much taken by the legendary second recording by Glen Gould, using many of his ornamentations - but probably not his very slow tempi.

The Britten Sinfonia's strings might have been born for Bach's masterpiece. Acclaimed for their virtuoso musicianship and pioneering approach, thus following the late Benjamin Britten in his demanding the highest standards in musicians. The Sinfonia have no principal conductor and collaborate with the finest international guest artists, giving performances which are insightful and rich in expressive energy. Thomas Gould is the selected artist for this particular task and he makes his mark as a breath-taking soloist and a highly intelligent leader. His strings are constituted as: 6,5,4,3,2, a gradual downsizing which favours both the venue and the work itself.The tempi agreed upon by the Sinfonia feel just right. Bach indicates his tempi in this case not by commands such as Allegro or Andante, but by increasing or decreasing the speed of the notation, e.g. from 8th notes to 16ths and higher, requiring (and getting) crisp articulation from the string players.

Colours and textures are idiomatic and follow the underlying emotion or rhythm, so, for example the quieter lyrical sections have a reduced orchestration, down to Sitkovensky's original trio, with Gould playing lead violin. The depth of tone from the lower cello and double bass sound is at times thrilling, as one can more easily recognise the real varied theme. Gould's leading of fizzing rhythmicity of the piece is dazzlingly revealed, as is the pattern of nine strict canons placed at a regular distance of every three pieces. He follows Bach's carefully planned arch of progression, peaking spiritedly at the crest of the arch with the French Overture, a model of vivid nobility. The last variation is not a canon in tenth, as might be expected, but an unusual piece entitled "Quodlibet" (a contrapuntal piece built upon several different melodies). Here the strings encounter two folk tunes with a sonic wink or two: "I long have been away from you, Come here, come here, come here" and "Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, Had my mother cooked meat, I'd have chosen to stay". With this surprising plunge of sublime mathematics and musical manners down to the level of a rustic villager, Bach appears to be amusingly preparing us for the Da Capo return of the opening Saraband, played here with a sense of completion and serene self-satisfaction.

Thankfully, this marvellous performance is fully supported by harmonia mundi's engineering in All Hallows' Church in London, fully based on DSD. The result is a cunning trick of balance, with the strings quite near and amazingly detailed and focussed, while being firmly ensconced in the warm bloom of the church. This gives the listener the same intimate feeling as with a string quartet, even in multichannel with its extension of the perspective depth of All Hallows.

Not just another of the hundreds of records of the Goldberg Variations, but a memorable exposé of the structure and power of the piece, in ways not easily communicated with a harpsichord or piano. The tonal colouring is as attractive as Albrecht's arrangement for organ, which offers an even broader palette (Bach: Goldberg Variations - Albrecht). Memorable and highly recommended without reserve. Living fossil? The Goldberg Variations will go forth as long as there are people to play them.

Copyright © 2015 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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