The Artea Trio’s Fresh and Significant Account of the Goldberg Variations

United KingdomUnited Kingdom J.S. Bach: Artea String Trio (Thomas Gould [violin], Benjamin Roskams [viola], Ashok Klouda [cello]), Kings Place, London, 10.9.2016. (CS)

J.S. BachGoldberg Variations BWC 988 (arr. Sitkovetsky)

There are some compositions which seem to have assumed a moral and spiritual value which goes far beyond any musical or artistic value that we might find or invest in them. To listen to such works is an experience that is ‘more than musical’ in ways that it is almost impossible to define. We imagine these works to be ‘perfect’, ‘untouchable’. It’s hard to imagine, say, Schubert’s String Quintet being performed by a wind ensemble, or Elgar’s Cello Concerto transcribed for violin, or Handel’s ‘Hallejulah’ chorus played by brass band, without some indefinable, spine-tingling, soul-uplifting quality of the original being lost.

J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations is surely one such work. The musical embodiment of Keats’s most renowned observation: ‘“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ We can understand why, in 1934, the American harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick chose to preface his edition of the work with a quotation from Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici of 1643: ‘There is something in it of Divinity more than the ear discovers: it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole World, and creatures of God; such a melody to the ear, as the whole World, well understood, would afford the understanding. In brief it is a sensible fit of that harmony which intellectually sounds in the ears of God.’ As pianist Jeremy Denk has put it, ‘The piece is a text reflecting on itself, satisfied in its own world, suggesting that everything you would ever want to know is contained within’.

We tamper with such mysteries and miracles at our peril! Or, I confess, so I feared before this concert by the Artea String Trio at Kings Place. Both intrigued and doubtful in advance, I came away surprisingly satisfied and excited by what I had heard – no doubt owing to the stunningly expressive and assured string and ensemble playing I had just enjoyed – but with some lingering reservations and reflections.

Some of my pre-performance misgivings arose from the origins of the Goldberg Variations, which – as apocryphal music history would have it – were composed to provide the eponymous Goldberg, a pupil of Bach, with a piece of music which would ease his employer Count Kaiserling’s insomnia. The variations were published in 1742 under the title, ‘Keyboard-practice [Clavier-Übung] consisting of an Aria with different variations for the harpsichord with two manuals’. This modest description revealed nothing of the ambitious nature of the composition – of the length of what was then, as is perhaps still, considered the most serious and ambitious composition written for the keyboard; of the encyclopaedic diversity of contemporary styles contained within; of the extreme technical virtuosity required of the performer. But, the term ‘Keyboard-practice’ does hint at one feature of the composition: it is not just evidence of Bach’s own astonishing compositional and keyboard technique but is also a compendium of the technical and stylistic conventions of composition and harpsichord performance of Bach’s day.

Can the idiosyncratic features of the instrument and its performance practice really be translated for different instruments which have their own unique technical, timbral and expressive qualities? For example, significant tonal and dynamic nuance is not really possible on the harpsichord, though some degree of accent is; but the slightness of the tone, as Kirkpatrick observes, makes it possible to achieve ‘almost infinite degrees of legato and staccato’. Then, there are the variations which so directly address the technical challenges of the instrument: the variations when scales in thirds, or arpeggios, chase each other with impetuous abandon up and down the keyboard; or when the racing hands leap over one another like dancers or athletes. How can these effects be replicated on three stringed instruments?

Dmitry Sitkovetsky had no such reservations about potential limitations and restrictions. Sitkovetsky described his 1984 transcription for String Trio as both ‘a labour of love and an obsession with the 1981 Glenn Gould recording’; he revised his arrangement in 2009 and also made a transcription for string orchestra in 1992. And, if one steps back and evades the ‘aura’ which surrounds the work, one might ask, why not? After all, in Bach’s day, before the Romantic concept of the ‘Work’ took a stranglehold on the musical score, the notion of arrangement and transcription was unexceptional. Moreover, given that the Goldberg Variations are now almost invariably performed on a piano, with a single keyboard, three separate string voices might actually confer advantage; for example, in matching the variety of register available on a two-manual instrument with different tone colours accessible for various sections and even simultaneously, and in overcoming the almost impossible, treacherous challenge of performing the interlacing hand-crossings that the transference to single-manual keyboard entails.

So, what of the Artea Trio’s performance of Sitkovetsky’s arrangement? One should remark first the exquisite gentleness with which violinist Thomas Gould, violist Benjamin Roskams and cellist Ashok Klouda seemed to place the work before us: this was a performance which was reverential but not ‘precious’, and, while full of respect and care, it communicated strong, individualised character and personal response.

The feathery lightness of Gould’s bowing was a joy to behold; paradoxically, such delicacy enabled him both to breeze through the flashing demisemiquavers with the weightlessness of the wind (Variation XIII was breath-taking, a tour de force of technical virtuosity!) and to coax a tender but full-toned sweetness from the lyrical melodies. Klouda was astonishingly light-fingered in the flowing semiquaver passages (Variations VI, XIV, XVII) and in the most demanding scurrying sections: the intense floridity was never laboured or heavy. But the cellist also phrased the expressive variations of the ground bass with the sensitivity of the best of singers. Roskams’ virtuosity was effortless, enabling him to complement, lead and enrich with a beautifully rounded, warm tone. Accuracy – of intonation, rhythm and ensemble – was so sure, even in the most technically demanding variations and passages, that there was a danger it might be taken for granted.

The prevailing tempo was of the Glenn Gould variety – that is, fast. The performance lasted about 45 minutes, at the shorter end of the scale. Textures were unfailingly transparent, even in the more densely written variations. But I felt that more ‘air’ was required between the variations which had the tendency to proceed helter-skelter with only the briefest of pauses to facilitate page turning; this need for spaciousness was particularly before felt before the ‘Ouverture’ which commences the second part of the work, to emphasise symmetry of the form, and before the final ‘Aria’, to affirm the return, resolution and wholeness.

That said, the Artea’s phrasing showed awareness of the architecture of melodic units and of relative balance and priority within overall formal structure. And there was an invigorating fleetness about the other dance-like variations (VI, XXIV, XXVI).

Ornamentation was more problematic, and perhaps an inevitable side-effect of the transcription; sometimes the bowing of mordants and turns drew undue attention to decoration (as in Variation XVI where the gestural rhetoric occasionally felt arduous), though this is not to suggest that phrasing was not generally shapely, and Gould’s decorative eloquence in Variation XIV offered much to admire and relish. Likewise, the Adagio (XXV) was infused with affekt.

Moreover, the general spirit of propulsion was not without advantage. We were reminded by the flowing momentum of the opening ‘Aria’ that the theme is a sarabande, a dance; and if in the first variation, and elsewhere, I felt that Klouda pushed the tempo a little, this became less noticeable as the work progressed and the players settled. The vigour and robustness of the vibrant contrapuntal variations (variations V, XII – which, as the complexity of the polyphony increased, was impressively homogenous of tone and weight – XV, XXIV) was a distinct plus, with the varying string colours and the frisson of the bowed-string timbre creating thrilling dialogue and energy.

And there were some breath-taking moments. An absolute knock-out was Variation XX which, as the tiniest motifs pinged back-and-forth between the players with pinpoint accuracy and definition, and lightning pizzicatos rang luminously, was like a match of musical table-tennis between Olympians. Similarly, Variations XXIII and XXVIII simply flashed by, a whirl of interlocking gestures knitted together with astonishing dexterity. Then, the rich double-stoppings of Variation XXII and the Quodlibet (XXX) offered a depth of tone that could never be matched by a harpsichord.

So, we reached the moment of return, the reprise of the opening ‘Aria’. I had found the first presentation of the theme overly nuanced: that is, I’d have liked less vibrato and less expressive swelling through the phrases. But perhaps that was part of the plan, for the closing statement was clear and direct with almost no vibrato and wonderfully even tone. And in the concluding phrases, as Gould brushed the unfolding semi-quavers with the upper third of his bow, it was if the melody was floating heavenwards.

Perhaps we should abandon notions of the Ur-work; perhaps no performance of the Goldberg Variations on three stringed instruments can, or should, aim to reproduce and replicate, but should strive for something new. The Artea Trio certainly gave us something fresh and significant. But, in so doing, they also reminded us of the magnificent architecture, formal beauty and expressive eloquence – the spirituality – of Bach’s music.

Claire Seymour

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