Bach’s “Goldberg,” for strings at Frankly Music
You can be a music fan for decades without hearing a live performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a monumental keyboard piece. You can go a lifetime without hearing it transcribed for other instruments.
Amazingly, two Milwaukee groups will play the Goldberg this season. Violinist Frank Almond, violist Kyle Armbrust and cellist Edward Arron will play it Monday and Tuesday (Nov. 28-29) at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, on Almond’s Frankly Music series. On May 21, the Philomusica Quartet and bassist Roger Ruggeri will play it at the same place. Dmitry Sitkovetsky, the renowned violinist, made both the trio and the quintet arrangements.
I interviewed both Almond and violinist Alexander Mandl, of the Philharmonia, about the their reasons for taking up one of the greatest and most challenging keyboard works. But first, a few words about the piece itself.
Bach constructed a well-ordered Newtonian universe of his aria, 30 variations of all sorts, and a repetition of the aria. Every third variation is a canon, each one built one scale degree higher than the last. The aria comprises 32 bars, to match the 32 components of the overall piece. Bach built most of the other variations on binary dance forms. He also mixes two folk songs together in a quodlibet. Everything relates to everything else in more than one way. To put it in the tiniest of nutshells, the Goldberg Variations of 1741 are among the great braniac achievements of Western music.
Within all his lofty theoretical achievements, Bach also manages to charm us with beguiling music of varied character at every turn, even as he brings Baroque keyboard playing to its pinnacle of technical achievement.
So why do string players want to mess with it?
“String players just lust after certain keyboard pieces,” Almond said. “It’s one thing to study it in a music history class, and another to play it and really dig into what’s going on there. Even for Bach, this is a monument. As an academic exercise, it’s just unbelievable. ”
Almond said that Arron, a frequent Frankly Music guest artist, had been after him for years about the Goldberg, which Arron had played elsewhere in Sitkovetsky’s 1985 trio setting. Just now, “the guys were available and everything fell into place.”
When Almond booked the piece, he had no idea that the Philomusica was hatching a similar plan. In fact, he didn’t even know that Sitkovetsky had made a quintet arrangement.
Mandl had heard Sitkovetsky’s string orchestra version on disc. Sitkovetsky created it for the New European Strings Chamber Orchestra, of which he was founding music director. Mandl wanted to reduce it to five players and do it with the Philomusica, but wasn’t sure Sitkovetsky would approve. So when the violinist came to play as soloist with the MSO in 2006, Mandl asked him. No problem.
“It turned out, it was originally a quintet that he had expanded for chamber orchestra,” Mandl said.
Mandl’s mother is a pianist, and he grew up listening to the Goldberg. Spoken like a true bow-and-rosin man: “Half the time, I was bored. It didn’t really draw me in until I heard the string orchestra version. After I heard that, I made it a mission to acquire the music. On the keyboard, the lines are so close-knit; if you pull them apart just a little, you can really hear where they’re going.”
Mandl was floored when he heard that Almond was also planning a string version of the Goldberg this season, also at the Wisconsin Conservatory, where the Philomusica is in residence: “Oh my God, what a coincidence!”
He was initially concerned about splitting the audience, but now thinks that a performance of the trio version might pique interest in the quintet. The same story can be told in more than one voice.
The Philomusica is together all the time. Almond’s musical partners, Arron and Armbrust, are coming to Milwaukee from elsewhere to rehearse for a couple of days and put on the concert. They have a lot to think about.
“Do we take the repeats in the dances?” Almond mused. “All of them, or some of them? What does that do to the arc of the form? The variations do have an arch [they assemble, in fact, into an arch form], a story to tell. And each variation has its own character. Some dances are more like dances, and some are very free. These are all things we have to settle — in two days.”
Concerts begin at 7 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 28-29, at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, 1584 N. Prospect Ave. Tickets are $36, $10 for students. Buy on line at the Frankly Music website. The Wisconsin Lutheran College box office is handling phone orders; 414 443-8802.