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Hyperion Records

CDA67826 - Bach & Sitkovetsky: Goldberg Variations
Ancient Harmony (1925) by Paul Klee (1879-1940)
Kunstmuseum, Basel / Gift of Richard Doetsch-Benziger, 1960 / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: October 2010
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: September 2011
DISCID: DD118320
Total duration: 74 minutes 26 seconds

'This arrangement has been recorded several times … but the Leopold's belated entry into the field eclipses all others … the hushed withdrawing of the Aria's ultimate reprise is spellbinding … for listeners, there are times when holding one's breath is inescapable' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This is a triumphantly convincing account of the Goldberg Variations from the Leopold Trio, whose ability to draw the listener into the music never falters throughout this beautifully engineered recording … highly recommended' (International Record Review)

'As I did before starting on the journey, you may wonder if the Goldberg Variations played by a string trio could ever be as good as the best of piano or harpsichord versions. After having heard this recording in depth and while still hypnotised by its spell, I’m beginning to wonder if I ever want to hear it any other way' (MusicWeb International)

'The Leopold String Trio does the work full justice. Hugely enjoyable playing' (Scotland on Sunday)

Goldberg Variations
Aria  [4'15]
Aria da capo  [4'18]

This is a welcome new disc from the brilliant Leopold String Trio, one of the stars in Hyperion’s chamber-music galaxy.

The Goldberg Variations stands as one of the greatest keyboard works ever written. Composed for a two-manual harpsichord, its universal musical language and distinct voicing has made it a popular subject for arrangement, including those for two pianos by Joseph Rheinberger, for woodwind quartet by Andrei Eshpai, for organ by Jean Guillou, and for solo guitar by József Eötvös, as well as the brilliantly re-imagined Gilded Goldbergs by Robin Holloway. Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s arrangement was made in 1985 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birth, and it is dedicated to the memory of Glenn Gould, whose celebrated 1955 Columbia recording of the Goldberg Variations became an instant best-seller and introduced a whole generation to this extraordinary music. Sitkovetsky’s arrangement produces fascinating and delightful results, especially in this vigorous and sensitive performance from the Leopold String Trio.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Johann Sebastian Bach originally wrote the Goldberg Variations for two-manual harpsichord, and it was one of very few works by Bach that were published during the composer’s lifetime, by the firm of Balthasar Schmid at Nuremberg in about 1741. The original title page describes the work as ‘Clavier-Übung [Keyboard Practice], consisting of an Aria, with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals, prepared to delight the souls of music-lovers by Johann Sebastian Bach’. There was no irony in the notion—expressed on this title page—of a work that aspired to speak to the soul of those playing and hearing the work: Bach, as a devout Lutheran, was deeply conscious of the spiritual dimension of music, and the wish of composers to enrich the soul as well as to divert and entertain. But the work was also an extraordinary feat of large-scale composition: if the Preludes and Fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier are counted as self-contained pairs of works, then the Goldberg Variations constitute the most extended single piece of keyboard music published in the eighteenth century, and attracted some international attention early on. Bach is often thought of as a composer whose music was rediscovered only in the nineteenth century (thanks in large part to Mendelssohn and Schumann), but his keyboard music was something of an exception to this, even outside Germany, and the Goldberg Variations were particularly valued, though seldom played at the time. In his pioneering General History of the Science and Practice of Music, published in 1776, Sir John Hawkins devotes several pages to Bach, thanking Johann Christian Bach (who had settled in London in the 1760s) for supplying some of the information in Hawkins’s account of Bach’s life. Hawkins concludes his discussion of Bach with three full pages of music examples, comprising the Aria, Variation 9 and Variation 10 from the Goldberg Variations, making this one of the first pieces of Bach to appear in print outside Germany. It is relatively unusual to find Bach being so precise in one of his keyboard works about the instrumentation: a two-manual harpsichord is specified for the Goldberg Variations, while most of his keyboard music is composed for an unspecified ‘clavier’ (keyboard). But there is a clear element of virtuoso display in Bach’s writing here, providing ample opportunity not only for the player to demonstrate agility as well as expressive range, but also for the instrument itself to shine.

But who was Goldberg, and how does he fit into the story of these famous variations? For the most detailed evidence, we need to turn to Bach’s early biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749–1818), whose Ueber Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke was first published in Leipzig by Hoffmeister and Kühnel in 1802. The accuracy of Forkel’s account has been much debated by scholars ever since. In 1741, either in Dresden (according to most recent sources) or in Leipzig (according to Forkel), Bach met Count Hermann Carl Keyserlingk—Russian Ambassador to the Court of Saxony—who employed a young musician called Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. In his biography Forkel relates the story as follows:

[The Count] often stopped in Leipzig and brought there with him … Goldberg, in order to have him given musical instruction by Bach. The Count was often ill and had sleepless nights. On these occasions, Goldberg had to spend the night in an adjoining room so that he could play something to him during this sleeplessness. The Count remarked to Bach that he would like to have a few pieces for his musician Goldberg, pieces so gentle and somewhat merry in character that the Count could be cheered up by them during his sleepless nights. Bach thought he could best fulfil this wish with some variations … The Count henceforth referred to them only as his variations. He could not get enough of them, and for a long time, whenever sleepless nights came, he would say, Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations. Bach was perhaps never rewarded so well for one of his compositions. The Count bestowed on him a gold beaker filled with one hundred Louis d’or.

It’s a fine tale—and the source for the famous legend of these variations as a cure for insomnia—but it seems that like most good stories it is also the result of some embellishment. Goldberg was born in Danzig in 1727, and was thus only in his early teens at the time of Bach’s visit to Keyserlingk, so it’s wildly improbable that Bach wrote the variations for him to play. Moreover, they had almost certainly been published just before Bach’s meeting with Keyserlingk, so the chances are that he presented the Count with a copy having been asked about the possibility of composing some suitable music. This also helps to explain the absence of either the Count’s name or Goldberg’s on the title page of the first edition. Moreover, the Aria that is the basis for these variations is found in Anna Magdalena’s Notebook, most of which was compiled years earlier (although Christoph Wolff has suggested that the Aria was added by Anna Magdalena on blank pages in about 1740). Peter Williams has speculated that the player Bach most probably had in mind for the variations was his son Wilhelm Friedemann, a brilliant performer who had worked as organist of the Sophienkirche in Dresden since 1733. Still, Goldberg is reputed to have been a brilliantly talented young musician, and a pupil of both Johann Sebastian and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. His compositions include a number of cantatas as well as keyboard works (though Forkel notes that while his playing was brilliant, Goldberg’s own music was less distinguished) and it is possible that Bach could have given the young Goldberg the theme to play. (This is one of the more plausible suggestions in the charming but largely fictitious Little Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach by Esther Meynell, first published in 1925.) Sadly, Goldberg’s career was cut short by tuberculosis, and he died in 1756 a few weeks after his twenty-ninth birthday.

The variations constitute a virtual encyclopaedia of what was possible in terms of imaginative harpsichord writing, and the piece is even more remarkable for Bach’s brilliant manipulation of the theme—the theme and every variation are in two halves of sixteen bars each, usually divided into two-bar phrases, yet Bach avoids any sense of fearful symmetry, let alone monotony. As a master of transcribing his own music for different instrumental combinations, the arrangement of the Goldberg Variations by Dmitry Sitkovetsky for string trio is an idea that would surely have appealed to the composer. Just as Mozart arranged some of the keyboard fugues from the ‘48’ for string quartet, and others have arranged The Art of Fugue for the same forces, so Sitkovetsky has taken up the challenge of re-thinking Bach’s music for entirely different instruments—as Bach himself had done not only with his own music but also with other composers such as Vivaldi, Telemann, Marcello and Torelli.

Sitkovetsky’s arrangement was made in 1985 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birth, and it is dedicated to the memory of Glenn Gould, whose celebrated 1955 Columbia recording of the Goldberg Variations became an instant best-seller and introduced a whole generation to this extraordinary music—a success that was virtually repeated in 1981 when Gould made a new recording that takes a less ebullient, more considered view of the work. Donald Tovey wrote that: ‘Until Beethoven wrote the Waldstein Sonata, the Goldberg Variations were the most brilliant piece of sheer instrumental display extant. No other work by Bach himself, or by Domenico Scarlatti, not even any earlier work of Beethoven could compare with it for instrumental brilliance.’ Given that part of that brilliance noted by Tovey comes from Bach’s writing for the harpsichord, it is curious that these variations first achieved worldwide fame in Gould’s version played on the piano, rather than the instrument specified by Bach. There are numerous arrangements of the Goldberg Variations for different instrumental combinations including those for two pianos by Joseph Rheinberger (revised by Max Reger), for woodwind quartet by Andrei Eshpai, for organ by Jean Guillou, and for solo guitar by József Eötvös, as well as the more drastically altered arrangement by Ferruccio Busoni (cutting out ten of the variations and adding a coda of Busoni’s own), a version for jazz trio by Jacques Loussier and the brilliantly re-imagined Gilded Goldbergs by Robin Holloway (recorded by The Micallef-Inanga Piano Duo on Hyperion CDA67360).

Sitkovetsky’s choice of string trio produces some fascinating results. With three instruments of broadly similar timbre, the contrapuntal and imitative lines come across with great transparency, especially in the canonic variations Nos 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24 and 27, or in the fughetta (variation 10) and the closely argued counterpoint of variation 22, or, finally, in the triumphant imitation (based on folk tunes) of the Quodlibet that forms variation 30. Some ingenious reworking aims to produce an equivalent of the virtuosity required on the harpsichord: the playful energy of variation 3 puts continuous motion in semiquavers on the viola that are topped and tailed by violin and cello. In variation 5, Sitkovetsky resists the temptation to write a third part, while the two-part texture of variation 6 is cleverly redistributed between the three instruments—leaving it as a two-voice jig—as it is in variation 11. The elaborate hand-crossing and figuration of variation 14 are imaginatively re-conceived as a dialogue between the three string players. The almost orchestral variation 16, a kind of miniature French Overture, is particularly well suited to the rich sonorority of Sitkovetsky’s instrumentation. The use of pizzicato for the running semiquavers in variation 19 may cause some surprise, but it provides an attractive change of texture. The highly chromatic writing of variation 25 works well on string instruments, with the greater sustaining power of strings allowing dissonances to be relished to the full. The frenetic momentum of variation 26 is, again, cleverly redistributed among the trio, while in variation 28 there is more effective use of pizzicato, perhaps to mirror the sound of the harpsichord as well as to lighten the texture. The grand chords of variation 29 are also persuasively transcribed. Overall, the character of the music is altered in quite a subtle way from Bach’s original: one obvious difference is that the musical dialogue now emerges as real chamber music, and while this wasn’t what Bach had in mind when he wrote the Goldberg Variations, it certainly produces an exciting way of hearing the work anew.

Nigel Simeone © 2011

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