The playing on this release is superb, and ultimately it just about won me
over, though I'm not as keen on this take on Sitkovetsky's arrangement as
many others have been. It's often heard for String Trio, but the Britten
Sinfonia play with a full string orchestra: using, respectively, 6, 5, 4, 3,
2 instruments per section. It sometimes works and it sometimes doesn't.
Generally, I preferred the more intimate variations though, as the disc wore
on, I was slightly more convinced.
The Aria is scored for string trio only and, taken at a leisurely pace, is
very beautiful, with an emphasis on legato phrasing. Variation 1 is scored
for fuller strings and, while it's less intimate and a little jarring after
the intimacy of the aria, the chugging of the violas and cellos makes the
inner workings of the variation perhaps even more audible than I've
heard before. That is, in fact, the principal gain of most of Sitkovetsky's
arrangement: hearing Bach's keyboard music arranged for a different context
makes new things come out of it, and the effect is often very illuminating
to the work's architecture.
It's the smaller scored variations that stay with me most, however. The
Gigue of Variation 7 is like a courtly duet, entirely appropriate to the
dance-based format of the movement. The canon of Variation 9 is beautifully
logical, and Variation 11 is very conversational, beginning as a cello duet
before involving the violin at a later stage. Variation 8, on the other
hand, bustles along nicely on the full orchestra, but sounds too busy to my
ears. Variation 12, however, uses the full orchestra to very exploratory
effect, seeming to push the boundaries of the music, almost into new
terrain. Going from this into Variation 13 is a tonic, a cleansing of the
ear, almost, as though moving from the public into the most intimate. The
strings then add a greater sense of attack to Variation 14, and here for
perhaps the first time I could hear the positive benefits that an
instrumental arrangement for strings
(as opposed to any other
instrument) could bring. A similar effect is felt in the Ouverture
that comprises Variation 16, which swaggers brilliantly, something which is
also true of Variation 29 which comes across as winning where, on the
keyboard, it can often sound a bit laboured.
Variation 18, the canon alla sesta, sounds eminently cultured and
delicately outworked, as does Variation 19, a virtual courtly dance, while
Variation 20 sounds chatty to the point of being argumentative. No. 22
adopts a more affable tone, though, and Thomas Gould enjoys showing off his
considerable technical skills in the solo line of Variation 23.
As for the minor key variations, No. 21, the canon alla settima
combines fuller strings with lesser forces, and to me it sounds too
inconsistent. Variation 25, on the other hand, the Black Pearl, works
because its arrangement is so spare, the string playing so stripped back as
to sound virtually existential in places.
Through it all, the playing of the Britten Sinfonia is truly assured, and
they pour their energy into making it work as best they can. My doubts
remain, and I'm not sure how often I'll return to this, but I'll admit that
sounds fantastic, rich and full, finally justifying
the use of the full orchestra, a proper summation to the set.
Previous review: Dominy Clements