Bach, Js: Goldberg Variations

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COMPOSERS: Bach,Js
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Goldberg Variations
PERFORMER: Leopold String Trio
CATALOGUE NO: Hyperion CDA 67826

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Whether arranged for accordion or marimba, two pianos or jazz trio, JS Bach’s ‘Aria with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals’ has proved an indestructible temptation to transcribers over the years. Particularly enduring is the string trio version which Dmitry Sitkovetsky made for the Bach tercentenary in 1985, and was appositely dedicated to the memory of Glenn Gould, who had died three years earlier. The arrangement has been recorded several times, notably by violinist Julian Rachlin, viola player Nobuko Imai and cellist Mischa Maisky (reviewed March 2007). But the Leopolds’ belated entry into the field eclipses all others – even if the opening Aria sounds a little queasy stylistically, like a cross between slimmed-down viol consort and string quartet, with the accompanying parts sometimes more present than the aria-singing violin. The hushed withdrawing of the Aria’s ultimate reprise is spellbinding, incidentally.

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Stylistic plurality is unashamedly embraced throughout. If some of the embellishing gestures are culled from period-instrument colleagues, sometimes the written ornaments suggest Sitkovetsky rather than Bach, and phrasing can swerve between camps ancient and modern. But there’s so much penetrating musicianship at work that nitpicking needs to be put in perspective. With the enhanced sustaining possibilities of three bowed instruments, the Leopolds are able to clarify canonic counterpoint. They balance a resplendently sonorous ‘French Overture’ Variation (No. 16) and the perpetuum mobile furore of Variation 26 with a subtly delicate Variation 13 and an intimately calibrated, so-called ‘Black Pearl’ Variation (No. 25). The lute-stop-like pizzicatos in Variations 19 and 28 are a delight. Hyperion’s crystal-clear sound also discloses a little breathing. Ironic. For listeners, there are spans where holding one’s breath is inescapable. Paul Riley