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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 (1742) (arr. Dmitry Sitkovetsky) [72:53]
Britten Sinfonia/Thomas Gould
rec. 2015, All Hallows' Church, Gospel Oak, London

Dmitry Sitkovetsky's arrangement of Bach's Goldberg Variations for strings is more commonly heard performed by string trio. The last version of this which I came across was the rather good one by the Leopold String Trio on Hyperion (review). There is however also an official string orchestra version which I haven't come across on recordings until now. In this instance the Britten Sinfonia appears with 6 first violins, 5 seconds, 4 violas, 3 cellos and 2 basses, which sequence has a nice symmetry. The arrangement ensures that not everyone is playing all of the time, which is good for contrast but, and very sensible in technically daunting numbers such as Variation 5, in which the speedy counterpoint is taken up by soloists.

Hearing the Goldberg Variations on anything other than a harpsichord or piano is always something of a leap - the attack and decay of tones as much an integral part of the music as the notes themselves. You will have to accept this as an entirely different vehicle for highly familiar music, but with such superb musicianship in a heavenly acoustic, this transition is made very easy for us indeed. The opening Aria floats down to us as if from on high, the melody on a violin solo, its accompaniment gently unfolding beneath. There is not so much an 'authentic' approach to this performance as one which draws the best out of each variation, avoiding heavy vibrato but adding just the right amount of expressive warmth to make the music involving and personal.

The change in perspective between small ensemble and full string orchestra is also one with which you may need to become accustomed. As with string quartet works which have been arranged for string orchestra, there is a payoff between the direct chamber-music conversation of three soloists and the broader sound of string sections, but there is also a relaxation and ease with these variations which allows the music to speak more for itself. We're not seeking the intensity and white-hot emotional strength of a Shostakovich here, and so a certain amiability in the musical portrayal is very nice indeed. At times there is a flavour of the concerto grosso in the setting, and with impeccable tuning, phrasing and articulation whether it be string trio or orchestra this is a long string of pearly delights. Long indeed, as all repeats are observed, but this is by no means a trial of endurance. Each time a return occurs it's more likely that you will have a little frisson of pleasure, knowing that there is more to come, and that each final note will be set on top of a perfectly constructed and proportioned whole.

Tempi are generally brisk, which creates some technically virtuoso variations, but more importantly convinces thoroughly in the dance-like variations, such as Variation 7, al Tempo di Giga. Light dotted rhythms and an unpretentious directness of style invite formal floating around an elegant dance salon and occasional significant glances between people of a certain age. As my old flute teacher Gareth Morris once said, "we're allowed to think naughty thoughts with Bach - he did after all have about 20 children." If you put your mind to it some of these variations do gain a certain sensuality from this performance. The limpid Variation 13 for instance, or the pastoral delicacy of Variation 19 with its laid-back pizzicato lines. There is also plenty of lively crispness, the string sound never coming through forced, but with plenty of variety in colour and layering in something like the sprightly Variation 20.

There is beautifully expressive playing all over the place, but a highlight is of course Variation 25, Adagio, famously dubbed "the black pearl" of the set by Wanda Landowska. Sparing in its instrumentation and sound, the solo violin once again floats over the gentlest of brush-strokes from the other players, creating a genuinely magical atmosphere.

Without a weak moment in the entire work and in stunningly good SACD sound, this is a Goldberg Variations to acquire and hang onto for dear life, for it is indeed life-enhancing. If you love two-manual harpsichords and are resistant to change now is the moment to ditch your prejudice, and here is the place to jump into the ever-growing stream of alternative Goldbergs. You may never need another.

Dominy Clements


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