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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations (Clavierübung IV, BWV 988) [72:56]
Trio Zimmermann
rec. 2017/2018, St. Osdag-Kirche, Neustadt-Mandelsoh, Germany.

I was somewhat bewitched by the Leopold Trio’s recording of Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (review) but that was way back in 2011, so I think enough water has passed under the bridge for a new version. Trio Zimmermann has certainly established a fine reputation with their recordings for the BIS label, so quality would seem to be assured.

Assured it is indeed, and this word applies to every aspect of these musicians’ playing in this evergreen of the keyboard literature. There is a lightness of touch here which allows the faster variations to skip along like a skilfully thrown flat stone over calm water, and the playful nature of the music making brings each gem of a piece to our ears with a freshly minted feel. There is no sense of any kind of over-reverential approach, while at the same time the performances are clearly filled with deep affection and respect for the score. The playing is transparent and with some lovely touches, such as the rising upper notes in Variatio 6 shared between violin and viola in exquisite antiphony. Vibrato is used as a means of expression, not as a ubiquitous presence, and while this provides an authentic spirit this by no means sounds antique.

Almost as an incidental point, all of the instruments used here are Stradivarius originals. The sound is excellent. Each player is well matched and balanced in a spacious church acoustic with plenty of air around the musicians but by no means too distant to have any feeling that detail is being lost.

Tempi are crucial in these variations, and Trio Zimmermann keeps everything swift and lively even where there is a considerable density of notation, such as with Variatio 8. The booklet notes tell us that the trio first became acquainted with this work through Sitkovetsky’s edition but, having become “captivated by the original score and its innumerable beauties and details [they] decided to offer a string trio version which is - as far as possible - neither an arrangement nor a transcription, but basically an unveiling of Bach’s score.” There certainly is a feeling of least resistance between the original and this recording; an ease with the music and a directness and lack of fuss which allows Bach to shine through.

Returning to the Leopold Trio’s recording has been quite a revelation. They sound quite earthy in comparison with Zimmermann, with a different kind of expressive pallet. Without the scores to hand I’m not entirely sure where the main differences would lie in terms of the two arrangements, though there is a good deal more ornamental flourish from the Leopolds; more added ‘stuff’ between the notes, which can be exciting and virtuoso, but can also get in the way a bit. Vibrato tends to pop up more in the older recording, even in swiftly passing notes in which it would seem to be extraneous. I have to admit that the Zimmermann’s refinement in all aspects, from tuning to expressive flexibility and rhythmic unity, is on a higher plane.

As previously mentioned, there is no wallowing in this performance, but there is also no lack in expressive depth. That gorgeous Variatio 25 moves along with a gently flowing momentum, but space is allowed for its musical narrative to unfold with poignant grace. There is no attempt to wrest more from the strings than the music would seem to demand, so Beethovenian profundity is not on offer here. Instead it is the shape of the variation as a whole from which the full effect emerges, the quiet towards the end taking our breath away with a glimpse of the infinite.

Narrative arc over the Goldberg Variations as a whole is a subject to which every review should refer in some way or another. With Trio Zimmermann this is something with which we become infused with the greatest of subtlety. The Quodlibet before the final return of the Aria isn’t played as a triumphant point of arrival, though its luminous tonality is an unmistakable finishing post, and a place of the utmost positivity before everything is finally laid to rest. The journey is not minutely mapped for us, but each variation is a renewal, each with its own kind of energy, taking us on secure stepping-stones from one to the next with never the feeling that this will become tiresome.

Packaged in BIS’s laudable new plastic-free ‘ecopak’ double sleeve like a mini gatefold LP complete with full booklet and paper pouch for the disc, this is now my new reference for Bach’s Goldberg Variations on anything other than keyboard.

Dominy Clements

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