Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-12-13
2016-12-23 — Original posting
Today’s concert schedules are filled almost to exhaustion. So, it is not unusual to encounter concerts which are undersold—often even vastly undersold. The most likely concerts with such issues are solo recitals and (even more, maybe) chamber music events. This was a chamber music concert—and the program consisted of a single composition, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. For people who are not familiar with this composition, the perspective of listening to 30 variations of one single theme may appear rather uniform, dry, maybe boring, if not esoteric. How much wrong this is!
So, it was not unexpected that this concert was shifted from the big hall in Zurich’s Tonhalle into the small hall (kleiner Tonhallesaal). That smaller venue features less balanced, less neutral acoustics. On the other hand, the average distance from an audience seat to the podium is substantially shorter. Therefore, the listening experience in that venue is more direct, more immediate. Maybe the listening experience is even too direct at times?
The Trio Zimmermann
2007, the German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann (*1965, Duisburg) founded his own chamber music formation, the Trio Zimmermann. This is a string trio, featuring—besides its founder—the French violist Antoine Tamestit (*1979, Paris), and the Swiss cellist Christian Poltéra (*1977, Zurich). String trios are a rare type of chamber music formation. However, ever since its inception, the Trio Zimmermann has played a prominent role among them, both in concert, as well as in recordings. The repertoire for string trio isn’t all that big. Therefore, Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a very welcome addition!
Frank Peter Zimmermann
Frank Peter Zimmermann (*1965) started playing the violin at age 5. In 1983, he completed his studies with teachers such as Saschko Gawriloff (*1929), and Herman Krebbers (*1923). He has been pursuing as successful career as soloist all over the world. Zimmermann has long been playing the famous 1711 Stradivarius “Lady Inchiquin”, previously played by Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962). As the bank who owned it went bankrupt, he had to return that instrument early in 2015. Luckily, in January 2016, he had the opportunity to play the 1727 Stradivarius “Général Dupont”, formerly played by Arthur Grumiaux (1921 – 1986). That instrument is owned by a Chinese entrepreneur and is now on long-term loan with the artist.
Antoine Tamestit (*1979) studied at the Paris Conservatory, later also with Tabea Zimmermann (*1966) in Berlin. Between 2000 and 2006 he won numerous first prizes ate competition. Now, he is pursuing an international career as violist. 2007 – 2013, Tamestit has been a teacher at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln (Cologne). In 2013 he started teaching at the Paris Conservatory. Since 2008, he is playing the 1672 Stradivarius “Mahler”, the first viola built by that luthier. See also Wikipedia for more information.
Christian Poltéra (*1977) has had Nancy Chumachenco (*1943) and Boris Pergamenschikov (*1948) as teachers. Later, he studied with Heinrich Schiff (1951 – 2016) in Salzburg and Vienna. His career launched when he was 17: he was able to jump in for Yo-Yo Ma (*1955), playing the Elgar Cello Concerto in Zurich Tonhalle, under David Zinman (*1936). His instrument is the 1711 Stradivarius “Mara”.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
I have posted information and thoughts on the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) in an earlier post about a concert performance on modern piano. That was a concert performance of the original version, though on a modern piano. In that concert review, I have given detailed information on the structure of the composition, which I’m therefore not going to repeat here.
In another post, I have written about a performance of the variations in a romantic arrangement for two pianos, by Josef Rheinberger (1839 – 1901). This is of course not the only arrangement of this well-known composition. In 1984, the Russian composer Dmitry Sitkovetsky (*1954) has arranged Bach’s variations for string trio.
If someone is playing the Goldberg Variations on a modern piano, claiming that this is the original, this instantly raises the question of authenticity. The point is that at Bach’s time, the sound, the articulation characteristics of the modern piano were outside of the scope of a composer’s imagination. One might claim that Bach’s music is “absolute”, and hence, that it is legitimate to abstract it from the particular instrument for which the composer created his music. In my view, this may preserve particular aspects of a composition, but it certainly ignores others. So, there is a danger of depriving the music of its very soul.
On the other hand, the artist may declare such a performance (e.g., on a modern concert grand) as “arrangement for piano”. That certainly is legitimate, as such arrangements were truly common at baroque times already. After all, composers themselves often arranged their own works for other instruments: Bach himself did this very often.
In the case of the Goldberg Variations, the same of course holds true for explicit arrangements for other, especially multiple instruments by other, more recent composers. Examples are Josef Rheinberger’s arrangement for two pianos that I referred to above. This includes harmonic “filling” and alterations. Another one, featured in this concert, is Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s arrangement for string trio. With such arrangements, the arranger needs to employ his own knowledge, his own creativity. The result is a (re-)composition in its own right. In other words: such arrangements can rightfully claim to be authentic and original by themselves.
As in one earlier instance, I’m arranging my comments by variation, hereby following the structure of Bach’s composition. I may not comment of every single variation, though. Note that the artists played both repeats in all variations, excepting the final Aria da Capo e Fine (where the didn’t play any repeats).
The Aria (or rather: it’s bass line, its harmonic progression) forms the theme of these 30 variations. The Trio Zimmermann presented this theme with deliberate understatement: with restricted dynamics, modest articulation and tonal effort, almost without vibrato. In my personal view, the articulation was too much between legato and portato, not percussive enough. Also, the bowing felt almost primitive, often a monotonous note-by-note up-and-down (nearly reminding me of the “sawing” of violin beginners). However, I think that this is mostly a question of how Sitkovetsky arranged Bach’s melody lines.
Clearly, each of the three musicians is playing in the premier league. Yet, in this first piece, as well as in some of the variations, it became apparent how tricky and delicate it is to use proper intonation in such a small formation of string instruments, especially if the musicians restrict the use of vibrato. The cosy acoustics in the small(er) venue may have proven to be rather analytic here. In the Aria, another factor may have been the need for the musicians to adapt to the acoustics and the atmosphere.
In terms of sound and dynamics, Frank Peter Zimmermann at the violin clearly dominated in the Aria and in the first variations—despite deliberately modest dynamics and articulation, very economic use of the bow. However, it was a pleasure to see how the viola and the cello gradually liberated themselves in the course of the variations. More and more over the coming hour, the three musicians “formed a single instrument”, grew into enthralling ensemble playing.
1st Variation (a 1 Clav.)
Actually, the impression of understatement vanished in the first variation already. The serenity, the comfortable simplicity of the Aria seemed a thing of the past: the tempo suddenly was faster, the articulation much clearer, the music much more vivid (this also pertains to Bach’s original, of course).
Most of the variations are for three voices, and therefore ideal for a string trio formation. However, there are some two-voice variations, too, such as the first one. Here, Sitkovetsky often resorts to spreading a single voice onto two instruments. This frequently results in a virtuosic, playful, rapid exchange of short motifs between these two players.
2nd Variation (a 1 Clav.)
This is a 3-voice variation, where the upper voices imitate each other, without it being a strict canon—this seems like made for this formation originally.
3rd Variation (Canone all’ Unisono, a 1 Clav.)
This is the first of nine canons in these variations. Every group of three variations closes with a canon, with increasing interval between the imitating voices; this canon is in unison. It certainly is an advantage of the string trio setting that the individual voices in canons and fugues are easier to follow, i.e., the polyphony can be elaborated with more differentiation and plasticity than on a harpsichord.
4th Variation (a 1 Clav.)
A staccato imitation on the harpsichord, properly ported to the string instruments, with staccato on the short notes, accents and tenuto on the long notes in the imitation melody.
5th Variation (a 1 ovvero 2 Clav.)
A variation with rapid, virtuosic semiquaver passagework in one voice, while in the original the other hand constantly jumps between bass and descant. The passagework profits from additional differentiation and plasticity on the string instruments. On the other hand, the “jumping voice” appears naturally spread between violin and cello—logical, but of course lacks the artistic aspect that the jumping hand produces on a keyboard instrument.
6th Variation (Canone alla Seconda, a 1 Clav.)
The second canon, “in the second”, a 3-voice piece, very natural-sounding, excellent playing, very nicely balanced.
7th Variation (a 1 ovvero 2 Clav.)
For two voices only—a nice, playful dialog between Frank Peter Zimmermann at the violin and Christian Poltéra at the cello.
8th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
Again for two voices only—this time, the second voice alternates between cello and viola. Very nice and entertaining, excellent playing.
9th Variation (Canone alla Terza, a 1 Clav.)
Canon at the interval of a third—three voices, like natural for this ensemble, I like the individuality of the three voices: an advantage compared to the original keyboard version.
10th Variation (Fughetta, a 1 Clav.)
A fughetta with three equivalent voices—aptly adapted for the string trio! In a way, this is a first culmination point in the series—at least on contrapuntal complexity. The next variation started after a rest of a few seconds (the preceding variations were all played more or less attacca).
11th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
A two-voice variation, here appearing as a sequence of duets (violin + viola, viola + cello, violin+ cello), where motifs seamlessly migrate from one voice to the next.
12th Variation (Canone alla Quarta)
The canon “in the fourth” is again very aptly arranged: this makes it so easy to follow the two voices—so well-adapted (all Stradivarius!), yet so well-differentiated! An interesting detail: the bass line to me anticipates a melody line in the Quodlibet (variation 30).
13th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
Variation 13 again seems to take a fresh start: it is a contemplative piece with a heavily ornamented voice in the descant. This is accompanied by a duet of the two lower voices. This is a variation that does not really profit from the string arrangement. Bach wrote out all ornamentation—and this is very much adapted to keyboard playing. On the violin, this sometimes sounds too heavy (for ornamentation), and sometimes the ornaments appear as melody, hereby hiding the underlying real melody line. I can’t blame this on the artists, it is an inherent issue with playing keyboard ornaments on a violin. Apart from that: the playing, articulation, etc. were excellent!
14th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
Excellent, this rapid, virtuosic exchange / “duel” of short motifs: even though one cannot see the two hands of a harpsichordist intertwining their lines, this is at least as fascinating!
15th Variation (Canone alla Quinta, in moto contrario, a 1 Clav., Andante)
This is the closure of the first part / half of the variations: the canon” in the fifth”, a contemplative, melancholic Andante. The string instruments highlight Bach’s advanced, almost progressive harmonics (reminds me of some late romantic pieces!)—more than a harpsichord can do.
16th Variation (Ouverture, a 1 Clav.)
After a short break of half a minute, part II starts with a French Overture: a heavy, festive introduction with punctuated rhythms / written-out acciaccaturas, followed by a fast fugato for three voices. Here, I quite liked the arrangement of the two ornamented voices for the violin and the cello; the fugato part was very sporty, virtuosic!
Part II in general is more complex, definitely more virtuosic (particularly on a keyboard instrument, but also here!), and it shows a greater variety in motifs / techniques
17th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
A seemingly simple piece in its structure—but tricky in the intonation for such a small string ensemble, especially if the intonation is not obscured by vibrato!
18th Variatio (Canone alla Sesta, a 1 Clav.)
Another nice arrangement of a canon (“in the sixth”, this time).
19th Variation (a 1 Clav.)
A trio of equivalent voices—though, the musicians carefully adjust their volume, such as to highlight the lead voice (which alternates between all instruments).
20th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
The original variation for harpsichord features two challenges: evenly interleaving short notes between the two hands while the two hands cross each other in waves on two different keyboards (on the piano this in itself is tricky to realize), and then, keeping the rhythm while switching to rapid semiquaver triplets on one of the hands. It is very attractive on a harpsichord—but actually equally interesting in this version for string trio: fascinating, fast discourse of short, fast notes between two voices! I particularly liked the sound of Antoine Tamestit’s viola in this piece: a very warm, never nasal sound, with excellent projection and absolutely equivalent volume! In the concert, this felt like a first climax in the series: excellent playing!
21st Variation (Canone alla Settima)
The canon “in the seventh” is rather earnest, in minor tonality. Another challenge in intonation (but definitely well-mastered here!).
22nd Variation (a 1 Clav., Alla breve)
A four-part piece with growing polyphonic complexity. Sitkovetsky cleverly spreads the voices over the three instruments, showing the piece’s complexity (maybe more than a keyboard instrument can do). However, to really show all four voices in their individuality, a fourth instrument would be needed.
23rd Variation (a 2 Clav.)
A series of time-wise close imitations, interspersed with flashy exchanges of short motives—very virtuosic again, and played masterfully.
24th Variation (Canone all’ Ottava, a 1 Clav.)
A real beauty, this canon with two equivalent, but octavated voices in violin and viola, with the cello playing imitations in the bass.
25th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
This is by far the longest of the variation—in this arrangement: a melancholic, pensive piece. With the strings, the contemplative aspect seems even stronger, more prominent. To me, this felt more abstract, more “absolute” than the original. I should say, though, that the tempo seemed too slow. It made ornaments sound like melody fragments. The underlying melody completely escaped the listener. Overall, this variation seemed too long. Maybe it is less suited for a string arrangement? Such heavily ornamented keyboard lines are very hard to realize (adequately) on a string instrument.
26th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
Even on a harpsichord, this piece with one hand in 18/16 time, the other in 3/4, is a virtuosic showpiece! The semiquaver chains, which seamlessly migrate between the voices are fascinating. The punctuated accompaniment in the other voices features light articulation. The arrangement for strings allows for much more dynamic and articulative differentiation than a keyboard instruments.
27th Variation (Canone alla Nona, a 1 Clav.)
This canon (“in the nith”) is a pure two-voice piece. In this performance, violin and viola voices are absolutely equivalent in importance, dynamics, articulation and virtuosity—and in their sound quality: excellent!
28th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
On the keyboard, 28 and 29 are the virtuosic culmination points in the entire set. Here, for a change, the string ensemble is at a disadvantage again. On the harpsichord, the explicit (written-out) trills in this variation are the central feature—in the string trio version, they degenerate to background noise.
29th Variation (a 1 ovvero 2 Clav.)
The same applies to this variation: here, the central (harpsichord) feature is the repeatedly alternating chords between the two hands. These are interspersed with interwoven semiquaver motives forming virtuosic runs. A 1:1 realization on string instruments is impossible, as even the fastest reaction can’t adequately reproduce the intricate interchange between the two hands. Therefore, the alternating chords are played as alternating notes on the same (two) instruments. The bowing once more was rather uniform, reminding of “sawing”. The runs are indeed virtuosic and elegant, but less interwoven that in the original. It’s nice, still, of course—but I do prefer the original.
30th Variation (Quodlibet, a 1 Clav.)
The final canon “in the tenth”—isn’t. Instead, Bach writes a very artful quodlibet, a piece that combines several popular songs into an artful, polyphonic piece. Here, Bach wrote a piece full of humor, combining folk melodies from songs such as “I have so long been away from you, come closer, come closer” and “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay“, and apparently others, no longer known today. Here again, the strings have the advantage that it is easier for them to highlight individual melody strains.
Aria da Capo e Fine
The final, da capo instance of the Aria appeared without repeats. After the culmination points, first in virtuosity, then in irony, I find this always a very touching “return to the roots”—much more than just closing the circle! In this concert, certainly, I found this to be more atmospheric (and played with more care and attention) than the beginning. Here, it was the closure of an excellent and atmospheric performance (and interpretation): diverse, multi-faceted, entertaining, virtuosic, yet never polished to perfection.
Many aspects of keyboard virtuosity are lost in this arrangement. On the other hand, there are certainly also individual variations, in which—compared to a harpsichord—a string trio is at an advantage, particularly in the area of polyphony.
The Trio Zimmermann exploited the variability and diversity of the pieces. From the 32 segments (75 minutes of music, played without intermission, without major breaks even) the ensemble formed a single, vivid and entertaining entity. In his last recording, 1982 Glenn Gould (1932 – 1982) focused on bracketing the set of variations with a continuous pulse throughout (as much as possible). In contrast, the Trio Zimmermann made no attempt to keep the same pace throughout. Rather, the ensemble gave every variation its individual character. Yet, in tempo and dynamics, they still managed to build an emotionally and rhythmically logical sequence, with a dramaturgy that culminated in the last, virtuosic variations.
Overall, I found the performance with the Trio Zimmermann to be a very enriching experience—even for listeners who know Bach’s original inside out!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.