Brains and lyrical beauty
The Philomusica Quartet closes with a quintet arrangement of Bach's keyboard monument.
Bach’s Goldberg Variations are not just for harpsichordists or Glenn Gould anymore. Who can argue?
The notion that this cosmically profound set of 30 variations should remain the property of keyboardists only is absurd. These days, many fine musicians, from accordionists to mandolinists, have the chops to play the piece with integrity. Add to the list the Philomusica String Quartet: Jeanyi Kim and Alexander Mandl, violins; Erin Pipal, guest violist; Adrien Zitoun, cello; augmented by bassist Roger Ruggeri. They performed Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s quintet arrangement Monday night at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and proved eloquent guides through the Goldberg’s labyrinthine complexities. Both Bach’s counterpoint and their lyrical playing enriched the musical journey.
Such a two-fold achievement comes with some risks. Playing a stupendously complex 18th-century contrapuntal keyboard piece in a way that sounds both learned and lyrical is no easy task. With the music divided into five parts rather than between a single player’s two hands, individual expression might obscure or overwhelm Bach’s intricate counterpoint. Especially for string players, who live for lyrical moments, the temptation to overdo the expressive potential of each line always beckons. This did not happen in the Philomusica’s thoughtful and restrained reading Monday. “Lead us not unto lyrical temptation” might very well have been their mantra. A touch of the operatic colored their performance, but just a touch. There were also lots of counterpoint and technical brilliance. The proportions were just right.
Bach’s music has the ability to do this, to turn his listeners into storytellers and artists. This transformation can only happen if his music is played with complete command and eloquence, as the Philomusica did Monday.