Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV988 (c.1741) (arr. Dmitry Sitkovetsky) [47:22]
15 Sinfonias BWV787-801 (c.1720) (arr. Dmitry Sitkovetsky) [26:30]
Dmitry Sitkovetsky (violin); Yuri Zhislin (viola); Luigi Piovano (cello)
rec. June 2010, Pottom Hall, Suffolk, UK. DDD
NIMBUS NI6199 [73:52]
 
Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s arrangement of the Goldberg Variations for string orchestra (Nonesuch 79341-2) is one of my “desert island” discs. The lightness, freshness and elation of the performance by the NES Chamber Orchestra are irresistible. That orchestral arrangement was born out of the string trio one that Sitkovetsky did in 1984. The original trio version (review) seemed not quite at the same level of excitement. It walked the ground rather than flew over it. It seems that Sitkovetsky had a similar impression, and so in 2009 he revised his trio arrangement, including some afterthoughts and the experience of many years of performing. It is this new version that we hear on the present recording, and it comes from arranger’s own hands. 

(Update: After this review was published, I realized that my relative disappointment with the older version was most probably caused by the specific performance/recording I was reviewing, and not by the arrangement itself. For example, I did not hear the the original recording of that version by Sitkovetsky with Caussé and Maisky, which, as some say, is very engrossing and illuminating. I feel bad for voicing such an unfounded speculation. - O.L.)

If anything, this is a good match to the orchestral edition. Even if forced, I could not really choose between them. I have reached the stage where I cannot live without both. The newcomer is young and daring, as if the spirit of Glenn Gould lived in it. Where the orchestral reading was softer and lighter, this one is more sharp and vibrant. This is not “Bach For Relaxation”, but a high-octane energy booster. If Count Keyserlingk would really try this as a cure for insomnia, he’d probably stay awake all night, so high is the caffeine level.
 
It all starts from the Aria: vibrant, full-voiced, very expressive yet with a certain “white” delicacy. The variations follow without pauses, which creates a forward-rolling feeling of agitation and delight. All the layers of the counterpoint are heard crystal clear. The slow variations are not rushed, and get all the necessary air to breathe. The great Variation 25 has a throbbing pulse: no philosophy here, but very personal sentiments. I don’t see a point in describing each track separately, for together they sound so well-fit, like bricks in an accurately crafted wall. This uniformity of presentation might be deemed the only drawback of this recording, but I refuse to consider it as such.
 
The violin’s voice is beautiful, the faithful viola is always at the surface, and the cello provides a solid, affluent foundation. Often the sound has orchestral weight and fullness. The arranger applies pizzicato and other effects wisely and effectively; everything is stylish and never crosses the line of good taste. The acoustics are very spacious, the sound is palpable and the music seems clad in bright gold - a true celebration!
 
Usually the Goldbergs occupy an entire disc, but here, because of the generally fast tempi and the policy of omitting some repeats in variations, we are left with enough room for a generous bonus in form of 15 Sinfonias (aka the Three-Part Inventions), also arranged by Sitkovetsky. This music may be less known, but it is no less enjoyable, and adds novelty to Bach’s inventiveness and Sitkovetsky’s skill. The arrangement and the performance are on the same level as the Goldbergs, with enthusiastic vigour, expressiveness and depth, while staying low-cholesterol. These are little polyphonic gems, and in the trio’s hands all voices are heard clearly yet do not get separated in the sonic space – a true ensemble effect.
 
The music provides a rainbow of moods, and the performers colour these works differently, finding the right temperature for each. They work well together as a set. Note that Sitkovetsky changed their original order, to alternate the minor and major modes as much as possible. The performance is energetic yet not rushed. The slow numbers breathe and sing. Like the Goldbergs, this is music that grabs the attention; every moment is admirable. A certain melodic closeness to Bach’s violin Sonatas and Partitas only confirms how natural this arrangement sounds. Again, the recording quality is excellent; the string lines appear like bright electric threads over black velvet.
 
In both the Variations and the Sinfonias, moving from the “fading” piano sound to the “steady” string voice has a definite advantage in long notes. The music may lose the fragility and bravura of the piano sound, but instead it becomes more singing. This is good for some pieces, whose singing melodies now sound more natural. After hearing it, one may think that it was the clavier version that was the arrangement.
 
In the booklet Sitkovestky tells the story the arrangements. To this Calum MacDonald supplements an as usual excellent and extensive musical analysis. All in all, on this disc we meet two glorious new Bach works for string trio. I cannot imagine more gripping accounts. Everything in this recording presents as a lasting work of art.
 
Oleg Ledeniov
 
Glorious. Gripping. Irresistible.