GMCD 7350 – Goldberg Variations with the Goldberg Trio Lucerne
Goldberg Trio Lucerne: Ina Dimitrova (violin), Annette Bartholdy (viola), Mattia Zappa (cello)
Fanfare Magazine September – October 2011
I’m aware of at least four other recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations transcribed for string trio: a Coviello CD by the Echnanton Trio; a Skylark CD by the Trio Accord; a Deutsche Grammophon CD featuring Julian Rachlin, Nobuko Imai, and Mischa Maisky, reviewed by James Carson in Fanfare 31:2; and an Orfeo release featuring the doer himself, Dmitri Sitkovetsky, joined by Gerard Causse and, once again, Maisky. It was Sitkovetsky who made the transcription for the 1985 Bach tercentenary, and all four recordings use it. This new release sets itself apart from the crowd by offering the work in a brand-new transcription made by the members of the Goldberg Trio Lucerne.
Why the need for a new transcription? Well, according to a blurb on the back plate of the album and reprinted inside the booklet, cleaning out the clutter seems to have been the main motivation. The trio’s players studied Sitkovetsky’s transcription and concluded that it relied too heavily on Glenn Gould, claiming that Sitkovetsky had meticulously incorporated all of the legendary pianist’s ornamentation into his string trio scoring. This, they felt, “diverted from the essential” and “left too little space for freely handling the ornamentation.” Further, in their new transcription, the Goldberg’s members claim to have avoided “any doubling, octavations [sic-is that a word?], or other additional means, which do, in fact, intensify the string trio sound volume but that would have challenged the logic of the part writing.”
Though the word is not used, one receives the impression that the Goldberg Trio’s transcription has been “sanitized” in an effort to restore Bach’s original text. Even the ensemble’s webpage unequivocally states, “This adaptation was produced with a devotion to detail and loyalty to the urtext.” Hello! Does someone need to tell these folks that an adaptation, by definition, is a departure from the urtext, and that the Goldberg Variations played by a string trio is an adaptation of Bach’s original scoring for a keyboard instrument? Would Bach have written the piece the way he did if he’d conceived it for strings?
To profess to taking the high road by laying claim to the original source strikes me as a bit disingenuous. I mean, if you’re in for a dime, you’re in for a dollar. But what really amuses and annoys me is that after making their vow of chastity the threesome proceeds to ignore Bach’s repeats. You needn’t even listen to the performance to deduce that. A quick glance at the disc’s timings tells you that no one traverses Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with repeats, in 41 minutes. A performance of the work as Bach wrote it would not have allowed room on the disc for the 26-minute Schnittke String Trio. So much for practicing what you preach.
Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be very politic of me to pillory the Goldberg Trio based solely on the ensemble’s failure to live up to its own high-flown principles; fault enough lies in the playing. Nowhere is there anything to indicate that the musicians employ period instruments, yet clearly there is an attempt to make it sound that way. The essentially vibratoless, white tone produced by violinist Ina Dimitrova in the opening Aria sounds pallid, thin, astringent, and wasted-away, and the sound produced by the ensemble as a whole reminds me of a 16th-century chest of viols. It has that swelling and attenuating effect I associate with the pumping of hand bellows. Only half of the piece-mainly the slow variations-is thusly affected. The fast-paced variations are played with an almost mechanical, clockwork precision, achieved primarily through short, off-the-string bow strokes, resulting in a kind of gunshot volley between the voices. If nothing else, it clarifies Bach’s contrapuntal interplay to a degree I’ve rarely heard.
Though I’m not very receptive to this style of playing, I do want to emphasize that the technical wherewithal required to bringing this off with the sometimes breathless speed and unfailing pin-point accuracy that the Goldberg Trio manages is considerable. What I take issue with is not the ensemble’s extraordinary powers of execution but with its interpretive realization.
Alfred Schnittke’s 1985 String Trio is no stranger to disc. In fact, as recently as 34:3, James H. North reviewed a new recording of the piece by the Goevaerts String Trio on Challenge. Not being a big Schnittke fan myself, my familiarity with the work has been limited to only one other recording, and that, not even of the original score but a string-orchestra arrangement on a 1988 RCA recording with Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists. So, I’m not in a position to compare performances. I can say, though, that I find myself enjoying the Schnittke a good deal more than I do the Bach.
Schnittke wrote his String Trio in 1985 on commission from the Alban Berg Society of Vienna to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Berg’s birth. Much of the commentary I’ve read on the piece, however, seems to want to distance it from Berg by stating that “the music is far more in the updated Romantic style of Shostakovich than in Berg’s atonal or 12-tone idioms.” But this fails to acknowledge that having adopted 12-tone technique, Berg proceeded, in a manner of speaking, to defang it. He made atonality, if that’s what one wishes to call it, palatable to the ear by constructing tone rows that have strong tonal tendencies, and he embraced a lush, romantic style of writing that has its roots in Schoenberg’s pre-l2-tone works, for example, Verklärte Nacht. In other words, Berg’s music is the music of a late Viennese Romantic, right in line with that of Mahler, only spoken in a 12-tone tongue. What could be more romantic, for instance, than Berg’s Violin Concerto?
Therefore, I don’t hear an incongruence, as some do, between Schnittke’s String Trio and the music of the composer it was meant to pay tribute to. For example, Schnittke’s strangely harmonized and bent-out-of-shape “Happy Birthday” tune in the first movement strikes me as not that much different from Berg’s embedding of Bach’s chorale Es ist genug in the closing pages of his aforementioned Violin Concerto. True, Schnittke’s trio is not a festive birthday greeting, and I can understand how much of its dour mood would put one in mind of Shostakovich. But I think Schnittke knew exactly what he was doing when he brings back the “Happy Birthday” theme in the second movement in a kind of surreal, slow-motion canon between the voices, calling to my mind at least the final strains of Berg’s Wozzeck, where Marie’s child, too young to understand that his mother has been murdered, continues riding his hobby horse and singing “hop, hop.”
Schnittke’s String Trio is as emotionally powerful as it is profoundly disturbing, and the gripping performance of it by the Goldberg Trio, in my opinion, redeems this release. Recommended then with caution for the Bach but enthusiastically for the Schnittke.
MusicWeb International February 2011
The primary motivation for this Goldberg Variations recording seems to be a desire to save the work from the excesses of Glenn Gould, at least by proxy. A string trio arrangement of the work already exists. It is by Dmitry Sitkovetsky and was written in the wake of Gould’s monumental first recording. In homage to the Canadian pianist, Sitkovetsky even goes as far as to transcribe the ornaments as they appear on the recording.
The Goldberg Trio Lucerne are understandably sceptical of the artistic value of this approach and have made their own arrangement. Where Sitkovetsky transcribes ornaments, they are more inclined to omit them altogether unless necessary. They are also committed to reducing doubling and what the liner-notes describes as ‘octavations’, presumably working on the assumption that Bach’s contrapuntal textures are more than capable of standing up for themselves without any added textural support.
The result is predictably ascetic, but the textures never seem undernourished, or indeed less than you could expect from a harpsichord. Despite their stated desire to move away from Gould, they share his approach of playing the aria without emotion so as to contrast it with the variations that follow. And each of the variations is played with its own distinctive identity and with a clear understanding of the genre to which each alludes. The slow movements are also played with a minimum of expression, and at slow tempos. The result is invariably both plaintive and elegant. The faster movements have real energy, although few are as fast as in Gould’s recording.
By not resorting to doublings, the playing of the individual players becomes much more apparent. That makes stylistic unity between the players all the more important, and on the whole they manage to match their vibrato and dynamics well. There are one or two points where the players struggle with just the sheer quantity of notes, the 26th Variation, for example, contains some slightly shaky passage work. But on the whole it is an assured performance and an excellent first recording of what is sure to be a much performed arrangement.
The Schnittke String Trio is a curious coupling. The composer has benefited a lot over the years from the assumption that his music can fit with standard repertoire works simply because it contains brief tonal or modal passages in the form of allusions to earlier works or styles. That only applies up to a point, I think, but you don’t have to dig too far beneath the surface before spiritual links between the music of Bach and Schnittke begin to appear. The B-A-C-H monogram makes a number of appearances in the work too, suggesting further connections to the baroque composer, despite the overriding Romantic/Modernist aesthetic.
Another connection is the fact that, like the Goldberg Variations, the Trio begins and ends with passages of very simple music, which contrast the complexity of what comes between. This time the players are slightly more emotive in their opening phrase, using more vibrato than many others, although still not much.
From then on it is an impressively impassioned account, with lots of swooping string lines and impressive dynamic contrasts. The balance is not ideal, and much of the first movement in particular could do with more cello, although I think this is a function of the recording rather than a performance issue. Much of the second movement is very quiet with long pedal notes seemingly drifting off into infinity. This is beautifully played, and the intense atmosphere that these players achieve with so few notes is remarkable.
An impressive recording then, with an ascetic Bach reading contrasted with a full-blooded interpretation of the Schnittke. The logic behind the coupling is tenuous, but at least it gives us an opportunity to hear these two fine and distinctive performances. I doubt that the Goldberg Trio Lucerne are going to convert any die-hard Glenn Gould obsessives, but they might just find a few new fans for music of Alfred Schnittke.
An impressive recording then, with an ascetic Bach reading contrasted with a full-blooded interpretation of the Schnittke.
Schweizer Musikzeitung Mai 2011
Un’operazione quasi. demiurgica
Note tenute o note non tenute. Questo è il punto di differenza essenziale, una differenza di ordine fisico e organologico, che distingue la versione per trio d’archi delle Variazioni Goldberg dall’originale clavicembalistico di Johann Sebastian Bach. Può sembrare poco, un semplice dettaglio a proposito della tecnica d’emissione del suono, ma dietro la passibilità di mantenere nel tempo l’esistenza di una nota (possibilità che al clavicembalo è notoriamente negata) si nasconde un universo di espressività e di sensi diversi. E tale la maggiore difficoltà che il Goldberg Trio Lucerne (un nome certamente non casuale, questo, per il trio formato da Ina Dimitrova, Annette Bartholdy e Mattia Zappa) ha dovuto affrontare nell’interpretare la famosissima pagina bachiana. Non e tanto un problema di filologia, implicitamente sospesa dalla scelta di ri-arrangiamento e dall’utilizzo di strumenti o tecniche non puramente d’epoca, quanto piuttosto di interpretazione: portare su trio d’archi una pagina per clavicembalo vuol dire sottoporla a una metamorfosi, vuol dire ricrearne completamente l’essere. E in questa operazione quasi demiurgica non si può dire che il Goldberg Trio Lucerne abbia fallito, anzi. Le 30 variazioni con aria e da capo si ripresentano nel disco pubblicato dalla Guild in tutta la loro vividezza, in tutta la loro infinitesimale precisione di carattere, tale che si potrebbe pensare a tanti piccoli pezzi isolabili e in se completi. Merito di un’interpretazione accurata e mai debordante, che ha evitato il rischio di creare dialettiche e contrasti plateali in un’opera comunque unitaria.
E la scelta di aggiungere a fine disco le due tracce dello Streichtrio di Alfred Schnittke e meravigliosamente appropriata. Se anche tra la nascita delle due opere ci sono 244 anni di distanza, ascoltando l’inizio della Variatio XXI e del Moderato si potrebbe pensare che dietro entrambe le pagine ci sia un’unica mente creatrice. Non tanto per stile quanto per ispirazione.