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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 (1742) (arr. Bernard Labadie) [77:28]
Les Violons du Roy/Bernard Labadie
rec. 1999, Françoys-Bernier concert hall, Domaine Forget in Saint-Iréné, Quebec, Canada
ATMA CLASSIQUE ACD2 2723 [77:28]

Bach’s Goldberg Variations was originally written with a two-manual harpsichord in mind, but Johann Sebastian’s eternal music can sound wonderful on all kinds of instruments. We’ve become used to hearing it on piano, and the arrangement for strings by Dmitry Sitkovetsky can be very successful indeed when played with sensitivity. Bernard Labadie’s approach is different, making an arrangement which places the Goldberg Variations back into the 18th century. In that period it would have been free game for the music to have been arranged for any instrumentation thought useful. “My intention … [was] that of acting as a musician of Bach’s time would have done, almost as though Charles Avison had chosen to base his concerti grossi on Bach’s work rather than on the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti.” The result indeed does resemble “a gigantic concerto grosso, unlike anything actually produced by a Baroque composer – but then, no keyboard work comes close to Bach’s original model either.”

The version goes further than a pure transcription while retaining the character of the work, adding harpsichord or theorbo continuo to string parts which are more or less faithful to the original. It makes changes where melodic lines are incomplete or sound illogical due to their keyboard setting, adapts registers where notes go beyond the range of the string instruments and generally makes the whole thing sound as if it was written for this combination rather than sounding like an arrangement. This all works superbly and with nice contrasts between each variation, all of which have been “treated as an individual entity”. String duo intimacy is kept for the counterpoint of something like Variatio II, opening out to the full ensemble for the following Variatio 12: Canone alla quarta. The whole thing is made up of delightful changes of this kind, the clarity of the music and Bach’s intricate but always sublimely enjoyable technical tricks are easily followed.

Labadie makes the point, with which I agree and usually also make with these kinds of versions of familiar works, that “this arrangement should be listened to for what it is: something independent and different, and not with constant reference to the keyboard version.” If you know and love the Goldberg Variations on harpsichord or piano then yes, there is a leap to be made when hearing it in a chamber music context, but this arrangement makes things very easy even for the most diehard sceptic. This is beautifully performed, with nicely chosen tempi and expressive but unmannered phrasing. All of those gorgeous transformations and transitions of colour and texture in the instrumentation create the general feeling of a ‘new Baroque masterpiece’, recently discovered as if penned by Bach himself and forgotten in a drawer somewhere. There is plenty of interpretative character as well, with pieces such as the Variatio 16: Ouverture distinctively French in its opening section, the articulation and dynamic rhythms suggesting an operatic drama to follow. Muted strings for Variatio 19 take us perhaps into a nocturnal garden and a secret dance between lovers, while full sonorities deliver the quiet theatricality of Variatio 21: Canone alla settima with stern but movingly suggestive emphasis. Light playfulness is always returned to, with little decorative figures and melodic lines kept airy and transparent in faster movements. There is a sense of polite decorum everywhere, but this suits Bach’s procession of moods perfectly. This is not the place for extravagant extroverts, though there is no shortage of virtuosity in something like Variatio 26.

Les Violons du Roy and Bernard Labadie do not put a foot wrong in this superbly recorded performance. The whole project has to be counted a resounding success. I hope this version becomes as much of a hit as any of the others around – it certainly deserves it, having waited fifteen years to become generally available.

Dominy Clements