Bach’s “Goldberg,” for strings at Frankly Music

Frank Almond mounts a trio take on Bach's epic keyboard piece Monday and Tuesday. In May, the Philomusica Quartet take it up.
November 25th, 2011 |
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J.S. Bach

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.

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Frank Almond

To explore further, click here, here, here. Also, pianist Michael Mizrahi will precede the Frankly Music performance with a Bach French Suite and some comments and illustrations on the Goldberg.

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. ”

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Violist Kyle Armbrust

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.

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Cellist Edward Arron

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.

 

 

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4 Responses to “Bach’s “Goldberg,” for strings at Frankly Music”

  1. Valerie Joan Kraemer says:

    for the above reason in Variation 25, the final descending scale-like sequence is like the final breath leaving the lungs, none of this variation should ever be rushed. It should be played as if Richard Wagner was on his knees at the foot of the cross.

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  2. Valerie Joan Kraemer says:

    I see no justification for taking any of the repeats in Variation 25, which many have considered to represent the cruicifixion.

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  3. Valerie Joan Kraemer says:

    it must be many times more challenging for strings than it is on the piano, and, in fact, compared to the rich diet of the Well-Tempered, it is relatively lean scoring for Bach pianists whose ears and habits are accustomed to fugue writing.

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  4. Valerie Joan Kraemer says:

    really looking forward to this. The Sitkovetsky trio arrangement has been my version of choice since I first heard it. Dispite the many enjoyments of playing the work on the piano myself and comparing many keyboard interpretations on cd, I feel that it works better musically from start to finish in this version for strings than it does on the piano, no matter who is playing it. Aand I’m definitely lusting after the quintet, which I haven’t heard.

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