|Review by beardawgs March 31, 2015 (10 of 10 found this review helpful)
|Sitkovetski conducting NES Chamber Orchestra on Nonesuch of his own arrangement of Goldberg Variations is one of my all-time favourite recordings of any music or composer. I remember, many years ago, when I heard just the first two movements on a music magazine sampler, how it swept me off my feet and I rushed off to buy the CD. What excited me the most about this version of a well-known masterpiece is not just the music, glorious as we all know it is, but even more the arrangement that sounds astonishingly truthful to the Concerto Grosso baroque idiom.
In Bach’s time nobody would, of course, raise an eyebrow at this sort of intervention, either by the composer himself or somebody else, after all Bach was a master re-arranger of other people’s music (Vivaldi comes first to mind). It really is surprising that we had to wait for 300 years for this astonishingly fresh new reading of an old war horse that survived all sorts of assaults, from (reasonably idiomatic) direct transpositions for other solo instruments to some less successful (and some truly disastrous) jazz re-compositions.
What this arrangement has uniquely to offer is the clarity of individual musical lines in Bach’s often dense contrapuntal writing. Each individual argument in complex fugues is presented here as a single musical line and it doesn’t require intense intellectual disentangling. One can either just sit back and enjoy some of the most wonderful music ever written as it washes over them, or engage fully with the familiar work in a completely different and rather unexpected light.
Verve and vitality of Sitkovetsky’s ingenious intervention seems to be coming straight out of Vivaldi, while the deeply rooted spirituality, so inherit to this music, is unmistakably Bach’s own. He uses pretty much every performing technique out of string player’s textbook, him being a master violinist not really a surprise, but what is really impressive is how he manages to spiritedly bounce the separate musical lines and ideas from one string group to the other, creates dialogues between various instruments and introduce an incredible array of sound colours in the process. The result is the sound world so completely different from the original, while at the same time still being the same piece of music that has become an integral part of collective sub-consciousness of the whole Western musical culture.
No pressure then on the performers! Sitkovetky’s own first recording (and until now the only one, as far as I know) already sounded as perfect as I ever thought I will hear this arrangement, but Thomas Gould and the Britten Sinfonia managed to get even deeper into all the melodic and rhythmic twists and turns that the arranger and the composer put in front of them. In a true baroque fashion they treat the music on the paper as a starting point of a reading that is, if anything, even more engaging than the old one. Gould focuses even more on the dialogue element of the arrangement, giving his soloists a bit more time and space to explore the music’s hidden minute details. Spacious and warm recording is also clear and focused, managing to make natural instrumental roughness audible, just enough to add yet another sound colour to the already impressive mix. Especially delicious (to my ears) were numerous ‘sul ponticello’ moments, when the bow is kept close to the bridge, thus colouring the sound with extra harmonics and giving the sound rather rough, almost nasal quality.
Every variation here is treated as a perfectly rounded miniature, not just by the arranger, but even more so by Gould and his players, and their virtuosity is more about the dialogue and the meaning, than the show. What I like the most about this new recording is Gould’s confidence to seek (and find) things in the score that Sitkovetsky himself didn’t reveal in his own recording – just listen to the track 28 – Variation 27: ‘Canone alla nona’ – presented as a virtuoso dialogue between violas and violins, and if you have a chance, compare it to Sitkovetsky own. Gould starts with solo instruments and only in the repeats of both sections (that Sitkovetsky skips) employs the rest of the players. In a slightly more relaxed tempo and with the repeat, Gould’s variation 27 is just over a minute longer than Sitkovetsky’s (0’56” to 1’58”), but due to the variety of his approach and delicate sensitivity of his players, it grabs the attention completely and it doesn't feel twice as long. Same can be said for the final repeat of the Aria, and that pretty much sums up this whole performance – total engagement, delicate sensitivity and incredible variety, but never at the cost of the universal musical flow. This arrangement was done by someone who clearly understands the music and respects the composer, and those are the qualities Sitkovetsky got in return from Thomas Gould and his players.
In one thing old Sitkovetsky’s recording cannot match this newcomer - the recording. This immersive performance got a sound quality to match. Sound is warm and with plenty of space (in surround), but at the same time focused and vivid, every pizzicato is present and movement of the bow alive, either joyfully dancing or languidly sustained, but always full of musicality and expression. In every respect, this is a disc to cherish and for the reasons both of the arrangement and the performance, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up high on the ‘best of the year’ lists later on.
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