Philomusica’s “Goldberg”

Brains and lyrical beauty

The Philomusica Quartet closes with a quintet arrangement of Bach's keyboard monument.

By - May 22nd, 2012 12:59 pm

Statue of Bach, Leipzig. Zarafa photo via Wikipedia Commons.

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.

The Goldberg Variations tell no stories, and the music’s abstractness is liberating. It frees performers and listeners to create their own dramatic scenarios.  This reading made that job easy.  Kim turned the sublime 25th variation into a lachrymose aria from an Italian opera of loss and desolation; the main fugue subject of the tenth variation, in octaves on cello and bass, sounded like a well-fed army crossing the Mongolian steppes. Add to such special moments Pipal’s beautifully reflective two-note interjections in variation thirteen and her hauntingly expressive utterances, supported by pointillist dry pizzicato, in the nineteenth variation.  When the music’s texture suddenly contracted to two parts, Alexander Mandl stepped in to create a brilliant dialogue. Throughout the piece, the understated continuo of Adrian Zitoun reminded us that this music is from the first half of the eighteenth century, after all. This is only a partial listing of the stuff that helps us write our own stories and paint our own pictures.

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.

0 thoughts on “Philomusica’s “Goldberg”: Brains and lyrical beauty”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I was sorry not to be able to attend. I hope it will be on Youtube.

    IMO the Sitkovetsky version improves the original -I felt that way from the very first time I heard it.
    I could only wish that there were arrangements like this
    for both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Although it is a truism that the Golbergs are relatively linear in comparison with the rest, as music the former are not in and of themselves stand-alone oddities, but hark back to such things as we’ve heard from the likes of Vivaldi and company. The abstractness within certain examples withing the set seem to echo the sort of things which string instruments yield most naturally with the bow and which seem, on the piano, like transcriptions of bowing tricks. The important thing about the Goldbergs, this so expertly revealed in this version, is the mirror-like balance in its total construction. The subtleties that are possible in performances of the work either on keyboard or by a chamber group do not necessarily need to lead us away from the starched, blunt and perpetually erect Baroque, but it can happen when someone feels compelled to introduce an urbane relaxation to it that relieves from the ubiquitous infusion of dance forms which the baroque keyboard style sseems in emulation of on nearly every page. The lighter effects we hear today and which have gradually overtaken the earlier recordings is different from the conception that many who lean on that old way retain concerning Bach, in that the lighter downbeat and stronger upbeat that Glenn Gould [and Tureck, once in awhile, if you listen carefully] forwarded to us revolutionizes the whole attitude of the piece especially well and also seems to have been an artistic genesis for the way Sitkovetsky oiled the graced its light, timeless progression. I take exception to the standard schoolbook interpretation, with its slow staticity and near-ponderous weight as being an example for later instruments to follow and it is also unfair to Bach to let the tone die in slow tempo without lifting it up to a new ornament occasionally, though ornaments were mainly there in the first place so that the harpsichord can be heard at all, as the tone does not carry in all settings. Glenn Gould, with an abstract effect derived in part by means of a runaway tempo in the early set, gave us a sense of harpsichord texture as a type of mosaic, and that is exactly the way that instrument holds forth in dense writing, even in non-fugal writing such as the Goldbergs, when it performs alone. But that does not mean that these mosaic-like effects are the basis of this strangely simple and flowing classic work. It only proves that it can survive extreme artistic differences of interpretation in our day when those differences are based on honest conviction and adequate intelligence, if not in question of the sleep-inducing story we are constantly being reminded of.

  2. Anonymous says:

    What she said. — Strini

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