Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) supposedly wrote his Goldberg Variations at the request of Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk who wanted some clavier pieces for his harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. However, there is no evidence that this was the case, particularly given that Goldberg would only have been fourteen years of age when the variations were written. The indications are that the Goldberg Variations were intended to be an integral part of Bach’s Clavier-Übung series to which they bring an impressive finale.
The debate over whether these variations should be performed only on a harpsichord or whether a modern piano is suitable pall into insignificance when confronted with a modern arrangement for small string orchestra.
A new release from Harmonia Mundi www.harmoniamundi.com/#/home featuring the Britten Sinfonia www.brittensinfonia.com directed by Thomas Gould www.thomasgould.com of Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s http://imgartists.com/artist/dmitry_sitkovetsky1 arrangement for string orchestra will no doubt raise issues amongst purists. I have no such problems, finding this new release an absolute joy.
There have been many varying versions of Bach’s Art of Fugue ranging from harpsichord to instrumental ensembles. Bach himself wasn’t above arrangements of his and others’ music, taking a practical attitude when using or re-using musical material.
On this new recording Thomas Gould directs the Britten Sinfonia from the violin. The Sinfonia consisted of twenty string players using modern instruments, a size that gives a marvellous transparency of sound that helps Bach’s musical lines to emerge clearly.
The opening Aria certainly sounds absolutely right with minimal vibrato and much expressiveness as the theme slowly winds its way forward. Variation 1 is full of lively rhythmic poise, the lines of Bach’s contrapuntal invention clearly drawn by the various string sections, before we move into a light-hearted Variation 2 with such clarity of line, a real joy. With Variation 3, Canone all' Unisono a solo violin leads another forward, soon joined by another, in a lovely canon backed by the rest of the Sinfonia who weave a fine sound. Variation 4 brings incisiveness and fine textures with a lovely forward flow.
There is some very fine playing in the fast and furious Variation 5 bringing out all of the nature of Bach’s original keyboard invention with added expressiveness and texture with top notch playing from the Britten Sinfonia. Variation 6, Canone alla seconda brings a release of tension, finely controlled and full of flowing breadth.
Sitkovetsky’s impressive arrangement of string lines is shown to the full in Variation 7, al Tempo di Giga with a lovely rhythmic lilt, full of fine rhythms. Richer, more incisive playing returns for Variation 8 with some very fine string textures and colours in this intoxicatingly attractive arrangement.
Variation 9, Canone alla Terza follows beautifully with just a slight slackening of pace yet with such fine forward movement. With Variation 10, Fugetta as each string layer is added there are some terrific textures and timbres in this wonderful arrangement with all of Bach’s feeling of inevitability. Variation 11 brings some very fine interplay from the various string players as they weave Bach’s fine invention. Variation 12, Canone alla Quarta pushes ahead with a terrifically light footed pulse, so beautifully controlled - surely Bach would have approved.
Variation 13 feels like a new discovery such is the impact of this arrangement, yet so attuned to the style and nature of Bach. It is exquisitely played with a lovely leading line from Thomas Gould. There is a sparkling Variation 14 with some terrific little intricate phrases from the leader with every section given the chance to shine. Variation 15, Canone alla Quinta brings an ethereal sound, stunningly lovely textures are overlaid before various individual players weave their lines in this gorgeous outflowing of ideas expertly realised here. The violins rise up, underscored by the rest of the ensemble in a great outpouring of vibrant, joyful melody in Variation 16, Ouverture with some particularly crisp and incisive individual playing before a wonderfully lithe conclusion.
This litheness is continued into Variation 17 with more terrific weaving of lines and a fine ebb and flow. Variation 18, Canone alla sesta brings another finely light textured canon so sensitively controlled with some beautifully restrained passages. Pizzicato strings point up Variation 19 against the melody of the other players in this almost Tchaikovskyan arrangement. Variation 20 comes as a fine contrast bringing a vibrant sunny feel with some spectacularly fine playing from the various members of the Sinfonia in some of the more intricate passages.
Variation 21, Canone alla settima is pure Bachian joy as the music slowly flows forward with each line finely overlaid. There is a vibrant, confident, sunny Variation 22 before some phenomenally intricate patterns are woven in Variation 23. I defy anyone not to be totally entranced by this variation. A stately, poised Variation 24, Canone all' ottava follows with the various musical lines soon flowing over each other in a way that Bach would surely have loved.
Thomas Gould winds a fine melody over the lower strings in a melancholy Variation 25, Adagio with these players bringing a fine sensibility, weaving some glorious lines. The vibrant Variation 26 jolts us back with playing of the highest virtuosity from this fine ensemble always keeping the contrapuntal line clear. Bach’s lovely Variation 27, Canone alla nona is realised with a gentle restraint and such fine textures whereas
Variation 28 brings to its beautifully light textures a fleet footed nature, gently pointed up by occasional pizzicato. Variation 29 brings out clearly Bach’s subtle variations of his theme as it unfolds with more very fine playing from the individual sections of the Sinfonia, particularly the lower strings.
The music rise up in a stately manner for Variation 30, Quodlibet, rich and sonorous before we return to the final Aria, a heart stopping lovely moment as these fine players weave the melody slowly and gently forward to the coda.
The Britten Sinfonia is on top form under Thomas Gould’s direction. These arrangements as played by this fine ensemble only serve to illuminate Bach’s genius. I suppose for many this will fail on two counts, firstly modern instruments and secondly because it is a modern arrangement. This would be an enormous a pity as there is some glorious Bach here.
The recording from All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak, London, England is first class and there are excellent booklet notes. In all, this is a real winner.