The primary motivation for this Goldberg Variations recording
seems to be a desire to save the work from the excesses of Glenn
Gould, at least by proxy. A string trio arrangement of the work
already exists. It is by Dmitry Sitkovetsky and was written
in the wake of Gould's monumental first recording. In homage
to the Canadian pianist, Sitkovetsky even goes as far as to
transcribe the ornaments as they appear on the recording.
The Goldberg Trio Lucerne are understandably sceptical of the
artistic value of this approach and have made their own arrangement.
Where Sitkovetsky transcribes ornaments, they are more inclined
to omit them altogether unless necessary. They are also committed
to reducing doubling and what the liner-notes describes as 'octavations',
presumably working on the assumption that Bach's contrapuntal
textures are more than capable of standing up for themselves
without any added textural support.
The result is predictably ascetic, but the textures never seem
undernourished, or indeed less than you could expect from a
harpsichord. Despite their stated desire to move away from Gould,
they share his approach of playing the aria without emotion
so as to contrast it with the variations that follow. And each
of the variations is played with its own distinctive identity
and with a clear understanding of the genre to which each alludes.
The slow movements are also played with a minimum of expression,
and at slow tempos. The result is invariably both plaintive
and elegant. The faster movements have real energy, although
few are as fast as in Gould's recording.
By not resorting to doublings, the playing of the individual
players becomes much more apparent. That makes stylistic unity
between the players all the more important, and on the whole
they manage to match their vibrato and dynamics well. There
are one or two points where the players struggle with just the
sheer quantity of notes, the 26th Variation, for
example, contains some slightly shaky passage work. But on the
whole it is an assured performance and an excellent first recording
of what is sure to be a much performed arrangement.
The Schnittke String Trio is a curious coupling. The composer
has benefited a lot over the years from the assumption that
his music can fit with standard repertoire works simply because
it contains brief tonal or modal passages in the form of allusions
to earlier works or styles. That only applies up to a point,
I think, but you don't have to dig too far beneath the surface
before spiritual links between the music of Bach and Schnittke
begin to appear. The B-A-C-H monogram makes a number of appearances
in the work too, suggesting further connections to the baroque
composer, despite the overriding Romantic/Modernist aesthetic.
Another connection is the fact that, like the Goldberg Variations,
the Trio begins and ends with passages of very simple music,
which contrast the complexity of what comes between. This time
the players are slightly more emotive in their opening phrase,
using more vibrato than many others, although still not much.
From then on it is an impressively impassioned account, with
lots of swooping string lines and impressive dynamic contrasts.
The balance is not ideal, and much of the first movement in
particular could do with more cello, although I think this is
a function of the recording rather than a performance issue.
Much of the second movement is very quiet with long pedal notes
seemingly drifting off into infinity. This is beautifully played,
and the intense atmosphere that these players achieve with so
few notes is remarkable.
An impressive recording then, with an ascetic Bach reading contrasted
with a full-blooded interpretation of the Schnittke. The logic
behind the coupling is tenuous, but at least it gives us an
opportunity to hear these two fine and distinctive performances.
I doubt that the Goldberg Trio Lucerne are going to convert
any die-hard Glenn Gould obsessives, but they might just find
a few new fans for music of Alfred Schnittke.