Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV988 (1742) (arr. Dmitry Sitkovetsky) [74:45]
Leopold String Trio (Isabelle van Keulen (violin); Lawrence Power (viola); Kate Gould (cello))
rec. 5 January, 11-12 October 2010, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, UK
HYPERION CDA67826 [74:45]

The arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for string trio by Dmitry Sitkovetsky was made in 1985 as part of Bach’s 300 anniversary celebrations, and it has been recorded among others by Mischa Maisky et al on Deutsche Grammophon and given a lukewarm review which incidentally also cites the Leopold String Trio’s Wigmore Hall performance of the same work in 2006 as ‘revelatory’. Another reasonably positive review can be read of the Amati Trio’s recording on Brilliant Classics, though Oleg Ledeniov was less inspired by the arrangement itself. There’s another report on a 2002 live performance of the Sitkovetsky arrangement here, and the overall review index on this work can be found here.

For myself, I have access to a couple of more or less obscure alternatives to this Hyperion version. The Trio ZilliacusPerssonRaitinen produced a nice recording on the Caprice label which has a pleasantly light and transparent quality. The Goldberg-Trio Bonn made a recording for the CAvi label which is richly expressive in the slower movements; at times a bit heavy in the faster variations in a more resonant acoustic. Coviello Classics has the Echnaton Trio, which has its qualities, but could do with being a bit more precise in terms of intonation and is rather earnest in its approach.

Having tuned my ears with these few points of reference, it became easier to see where the Leopold String Trio might find itself amongst the competition. To start with, this is the longest of any of the versions I’ve seen, which means lots of repeats. This might be a cause for concern, were it not for the sense of freedom and inner variation which we hear, even in the opening Aria. Here Isabelle van Keulen uses vibrato as an expressive weapon, colouring certain notes with stylish ornament rather than using it as a technical cover-all. The sense of lively discussion amongst the players in musical terms is brought about through the provision of distinctive character to each of the parts. The criticism of the ‘top, middle, bass’ nature of the arrangement falls away when you hear Lawrence Power picking out the prominent notes in his part, when you hear Van Keulen responding and echoing his lead and vice-versa, and the whole being driven by the positive vibes of Kate Gould’s cello. This last mentioned ‘bass’ instrument is arguably a little more distant in the recorded balance but – as if it were needed – keeps everything as tight as Charlie Watts’ drum-kit.

Character in the playing is what makes this recording that extra bit special. Even where the tempo is at full pelt, such as in Variation 5, there is never any question of anyone scrubbing their way through, and the listener is kept on the edge of their seat – not with a feeling of impending disaster, but in order to pick up every shining detail. The dynamics are special as well, almost vanishingly quiet in Variation 6, but capable of real impact and ‘wallop’ where required. Non-dogmatic and intelligent application of historically informed performance style is an aspect of the playing here, with measured dosages of vibrato as mentioned previously, but with no sense of stylistic stagnation or point scoring. Each variation is given its own atmosphere: dancing in formal patterns; Variation 7, noble and strutting; Variation 10, meltingly simple; Variation 13 and teacup-breakingly boisterous; Variation 14. The pizzicato in Variation 19 is precious and priceless, and all of those crucially significant variations, 21 and 25 for instance, are made points of emotional focus through their beautifully observed touches of extra emotional weight. The penultimate Quodlibet is given a rustic sense of raw energy which is like a refreshing drink after a long journey. Gould’s cello note at the end of this is allowed to decay completely, a masterful touch which acts as the transition to the final return of the graceful Aria.

Hyperion’s engineering is excellent, and the Paul Klee cover Ancient Harmony is another stroke of packaging genius. As I did before starting on the journey, you may wonder if the Goldberg Variations played on a string trio could ever be as good as the best of piano or harpsichord versions. After having heard this recording in depth and while still hypnotised by its spell, I’m beginning to wonder if I ever want to hear it any other way.

Dominy Clements

Masterwork Index: Goldverg Variations

Captivating, mesmerising, and life-enhancing.