Tom Strini
Philomusica Quartet

Bach’s “Goldberg” redux

A string quintet version of Bach's monumental keyboard work, "Goldberg Variations," at the Conservatory Monday.

By - May 21st, 2012 04:00 am

Alexander Mandl. Photo courtesy of the Beloit-Janesville Symphony Orchestra.

“Oh my god, what a coincidence!”

Such was Alexander Mandl’s reaction when he heard, late last summer, that Frank Almond was planning to perform a string version of Bach’s Goldberg Variation on the Frankly Music Series during the 2011-12 season. Like Almond, Mandl is a violinist with a keen interest in chamber music. Mandl, violinist Jeanyi Kim, cellist Adrien Zitoun and acting violist Erin Pipal (Nathan Hackett is on leave) are the Philomusica Quartet. And like Almond, Mandl planned to do a string treatment of the Goldberg.

Not only did both groups take up the same piece, they scheduled the same venue, the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.  Almond and friends played the Goldberg there in November. The Philomusica will take it up Monday evening (May 21).

What makes this even stranger is that Bach composed the Goldberg Variations as a tour-de-force for harpsichord. So we’re hearing the piece twice in one season, but not on the keyboard.

A big difference separates the two performances: Almond presented the Goldberg in November as a trio, for violin, viola (Kyle Armbrust) and cello (Edward Arron). The Philomusica will play a quintet arrangement, with guest bassist Roger Ruggeri making five. One more bit of oddness: Violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky created both arrangements. Mandl got interested during his student days at Yale, when he heard, on disc, yet another Sitkovetsky version, for string orchestra.


Roger Ruggeri

“I was working at a record store and heard a demo CD by the New European Strings Chamber Orchesta,” Mandl said. “Sitkovetsky was the music director and made the arrangement for them. I’ve known Dmitry for maybe 15 years. I wanted to reduce the orchestra version to quintet, but I thought he might not like that. When he was here to play with the MSO in 2006, I asked him about it. It turns out, he had expanded an earlier quintet for the orchestra. So it was fine.”

The keyboard original and the string trio version are monstrously difficult to play. The quintet is hard, but not crazily so.

“I see why Dmitry expanded the trio version,” Mandl said. “The texture somehow seems more transparent. You can hear the lines clearly, and you can avoid a lot of double-stops. It expands the three-dimensionality of it.”

I described the piece more fully in the Frankly Music advance story last fall, but I will say that texture counts. The piece opens and closes with an aria, with 30 variations, comprising all manner of canons and dances, in between.

“I’m usually wary of transcriptions,” Mandl said. “But Bach made transcriptions himself, of Vivaldi’s music. And Dmitry is very good at it.

“On the keyboard, Bach’s fabric is so close-knit. This setting for strings pulls it apart, just a little, so you can really hear the lines and how they connect. I don’t mean to be cheesy about this, but this music has an inner world and an outer world. With the strings you can hear the full dimension of timbres and lines, you can hear the connections between the inner and outer worlds.”

The concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 21, with a lecture on the variations, and subsequent performance. Tickets are $22, $12 for students. To order call (414) 276-5760. The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music is at 1584 N. Prospect Ave.

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