A Goldberg to Dream About

United StatesUnited States Bach, Goldberg VariationsTranscribed by Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Juilliard415, Monica Huggett (leader), Peter Jay Sharp Theater, The Juilliard School, New York City, 27.2.2013 (SSM)

Monica Huggett on Violin leading Juilliard415. Photo Credit ; Rahav Iggy Segev/ Photopass
Monica Huggett on violin leading Juilliard415. Photo Credit:  Rahav Iggy Segev/ Photopass

I can’t think of another work that contains so much potential, such unlimited possibilities to shape itself, as the Goldberg Variations. Every interpretation that meets its demanding technical requirements has something to offer. There are no performances that can be considered definitive, no one standard way to play it. Depending upon the musicians’ decisions on tempo and velocity, it has been played in as few as thirty-eight minutes (Glenn Gould, 1955) and as long as ninety-four minutes (Roslyn Tureck, 1959). Even if one were to add back the thirty-eight minutes of da capos to Gould’s recording, Ms. Tureck’s performance would still be eighteen minutes longer than Gould’s.

What other work in the history of music has been as transcribed, transposed, rearranged and “corrected.” Versions exist for two pianos, harp, organ, guitar, digital synthesizer and accordion (a thoroughly convincing performance by Teodoro Anzellotti). There is even a “re-performance” of Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording on a Yamaha digital piano that is an exact replication of Gould’s. And then we have Uri Caine’s jazzed-up version with viola da gamba, drums, electric bass and turntables.

As far as transcriptions go, that of Dmitry Sitkovetsky stays very close to home. Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations for a Claviercembal mit 2 Manualen and never goes beyond three voices at a time, usually two upper and one bass.

This makes it a natural for string trio: violin, viola and cello. In its orchestrated version here, the other string players back or double the voices, giving it a depth and warmth more strongly conveyed than with a simple string trio.

This is the first time I’ve heard Sitkovetsky’s version played on period instruments, and what a performance it was. With Monica Huggett playing first violin along with three star virtuosi students ˗ Samuel Park, violin; Daniel McCarthy, viola; and Michael Unterman, cello ˗ the Juilliard Historical Performance’s student orchestra created a colorful and vibrant reading. Ms. Huggett’s phrasing was immaculate. Her sensitivity to all the subtle changes in tempo and rhythm conveyed much more information from the score than the keyboard version. The variable gradations available to a string player made the music sing.

Although there are many brilliant performances on the keyboard, instruments like the harpsichord are inherently limited in their sonic range. Control over volume and decay are limited on these instruments (less so on the piano), but limitless on strings. Particularly with a work like the Goldberg Variations each voice needs to be attended to and expressed individually. Playing the work with strings allows each instrument to have total control over every line.

So it was with the canons. These musical “rounds” can be difficult to follow, but here, where a different instrument picked up and repeated the theme, the structure of the movement became perfectly apparent. The pathos of the slow thirteenth variation touched me as if I were hearing it for the first time. Ms Huggett made sensible choices about taking or not taking the da capos. The twenty-fifth variation, if played slowly and with all the da capos, tends to throw the construction of the entire work out of balance. Wisely, Ms. Huggett did not repeat the “B” section of this variation so as not to extend its somber mood. The final variations, often taken together with minimum pauses, never seemed rushed.

The orchestra of fourteen musicians was one less than in Sitkovetsky’s original recording for Nonesuch in 1993. That was a spirited performance, but the use of modern instruments made it colorless. Here, the maturity and professionalism of the student group was astonishing. The soloists played their parts as if they had lived with this music for their entire lives. Michael Untermann’s playing in the twenty-sixth variation was breathtaking, repeating the difficult scoring in each of the sections without once seeming to strain.

This was a concert to be remembered and one against which other performances of this masterpiece should be judged.