J S BACH – The Goldberg Variations – for String Quartet

German Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach [1685–1750] wrote the Goldberg Variations for solo harpsichord. There is a quite interesting musical analysis of this piece on Wikipedia here. This also contains many fascinating extra-musical anecdotes so I shall attempt to keep my introduction brief, and concern myself with the issues pertaining to this particular performance.

I came upon this string quartet arrangement only last week when I reviewed the companion piece on the CD, Glenn Gould’s one string quartet. The work was arranged by members of the Catalyst Quartet, who are also the performers. I must confess to not being optimistic about this piece at the time. Clearly the brief nature of the arrangement would indicate that it was based on pianist Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording which was itself a very shortened version, with very few of the marked repeats being performed. The movement lengths are very similar on both versions.

Technically the work is an aria followed by thirty variations of the bass part of the aria, which can be viewed variously as ten sets of three, three sets of ten and two sets of fifteen. The work concludes with a repeat of the aria. I won’t bore you with the many discussions about the validity of Gould’s version except to say that it changed the way that people thought about playing Bach on the piano.

This string quartet arrangement features many different combinations of instruments as it navigates the variations. When I first heard it, I was a little overwhelmed as the music seemed to fly past me very quickly. However, for this discussion, I listened to each variation individually and at a leisurely pace, sometimes more than once and was able to give each of them my full concentration. I haven’t mentioned all of the movements, but it is a conscious selection.

The opening aria has to be one of Bach’s most endearing melodies, and this is wonderfully expressed by the quartet. The movement is in two sections and the contrasting section, which just happens to be one of my favourite passages of Bach’s solo piano pieces is filled with charm in its approach here. Unfortunately for me, it is the most significant instance where I really miss the repeats, as nominated by the composer. This precludes the joy of hearing the ebb and flow of these two marvellous melodic sections which I believe to be central to the work. Now on to the variations.

Variation 1 is a gorgeous romp for the first violin – there is such joy to be found here.

Variation 2 is another romp, this time a little more measured. I find it amazing that the quartet can capture the essence of this in 41 seconds – it is just so fulfilling.

Variation 3 is stunning, with two sections meshing beautifully with one another.

Variation 4 sparkles, despite its minimal length, and has a charm all of its own.

Variation 5 is a torrid workout for the two violins, which positively race against a more controlled viola and cello part.

Variation 6, a canon, features a sparkling violin, accompanied by a brilliant cameo from the cello. Interestingly, this last set of three variations just happens to be the shortest on the disc.

Variation 9, another canon even finds time in its 51 seconds duration to pause and restate the theme – again there is a fabulous cello part here.

Variation 11, a fugue, sustains interest with another sparkling cello role which sets up the fugal subject for all instruments to work with.

Variation 13 is taken at a slow tempo and evokes Bach’s Air on a G String. This is a stunning piece for a moving solo violin over a gentle pizzicato cello. It runs over three sections and is one of the most pleasing pieces to be heard in this performance. Such sparse beauty.

Variation 14 is a tremendously moving sound scape, again for the violin and cello. It seems to be over as soon as it starts – such is its brevity.

Variation 15 takes up the mood from the previous piece and is a masterpiece of Baroque miniaturism. Featuring a pause mid-movement, the first violin and resonant arco cello paint a remarkable canvas.

Variation 16 is another masterful Baroque miniature, beginning with violin and cello in a slow tempo, before embarking on a spirited duet.

Variation 19 evokes a new, gentle mood with a smooth cello and a constant viola pizzicato supporting the first violin in its brief journey. This was recorded so softly that I had to boost it by eight decibels to appreciate its pleasures.

Variation 21, another canon is a sombre, fascinating intertwining piece which sounds to me like all members of the quartet are involved.

Variation 23 is an energised collection of rapid ascending and descending violin lines, accompanied by the cello.

Variation 25 is a wonderfully lamenting piece that really speaks to me. I thought that I was familiar with the Goldbergs but this was a real treat – the solo violin lines are truly wonderful. Being the longest piece in this arrangement, it sustains its elegance for some considerable time and is mostly made up of two violin voices. Towards the end, the cello subtly drifts in, leading to a refined conclusion.

Variation 28 has a totally different feeling from the rest of the work. There is even a short section which is reminiscent of a miniature Bach Brandenburg Concerto.

Variation 30, and the last canon is a rich denouement with tremendous overlapping cello and violin lines.

The closing aria, slightly longer than the first, and possibly a little slower is a fascinating testament to the skill of Bach. The mood is sublime and the contrasting section is beautiful beyond belief. I marvel at the fact that Bach’s works can apparently be successfully arranged for so many different musical ensembles.

This is a work that cries out for explanation of its many mysteries and for once, I believe that a little investigation into the form of the piece does help in its enjoyment. The previously mentioned Wikipedia article is a good start. There is also a great series of lectures by The Teaching Company (TTC) which really bring out the various concepts that define the work.

The review CD, Bach/Gould Project, on the Azica label is performed by the Catalyst Quartet and is available on Amazon US and UK. As mentioned, it also contains Glenn Gould’s one string quartet which I favourably reviewed last week.

The CD can be heard on Spotify and YouTube.

Listenability: A transcendent experience – I believe everyone should own a piano version as well.


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