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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 [38:07]
Suite No. 1 in C, BWV 1066 [15:11]
Arranged for wind quartet by Václav Vonášek
Arundo Quartet
rec. 2018, Martínek Studio, Prague
SUPRAPHON SU4261-2 [55:31]

Bach’s music is famously indestructible, and if it can survive being played by synthesisers and rock guitars then it can definitely survive being played by a cultivated wind quartet like this one.

There is, of course, a long history of playing the Goldberg Variations on non-keyboard instrument, so Václav Vonášek is treading familiar ground by arranging it for a wind group. He mentions in the booklet note that his original plan was to arrange them for a trio, but he was really struggling to arrange several of the variations that way. The breakthrough moment came when he recognised the importance of the tenor voice, so he added a basset horn and created the lovely thing you hear on this disc.

I think the wind indeed and, in fact, it’s the combination of instruments that makes it so successful. There is, for example, a fairly magical quality to the Aria, the oboe singing with translucent beauty, with the clarinet’s very different cantabile taking over for B section. Meanwhile the bassoon quietly upholds the bass line, before becoming untethered in the first variation. It’s remarkably effective, and demonstrates the importance of balance. Not all instruments are used for every variation, but they’re always deployed effectively, and Vonášek’s arrangements are extremely attentive to all the music’s lines. Maybe it takes a bassoonist to comprehend all the voices but to know his own place within them.

A few highlights include the gurgling chatter of variation 5, and often, as in variation 11 or 21, the joy comes from the joshing banter between the clarinet and its country cousin, the basset horn. Sometimes, as in variation 13, I was drawn to the operatic intensity of the oboe, which then sometimes turns from aria into a duet with the clarinet. The whole team revel in the fake (?) pomposity of variation 16 and in the honkytonk brightness of variation 29. The quodlibet, in particular, sounds as though it is built from the ground up, in a way you very seldom hear when it’s played on a keyboard, and it melts beautifully into a tender recapitulation of the Aria.

You might say, why bother doing the Goldbergs this way? We bother because of the very inexhaustibility of Bach. As with Sitkovetsky’s orchestral arrangement, some of what you hear will charm you, and some might surprise you, but Bach’s ever-present genius comes forth repeatedly and helps you rediscover the wonder of the music over and over again.

By Vonášek’s own admission that’s slightly less the case in the arrangement of the Orchestral Suite because, for all the orchestral forces, Bach conceived it almost entirely for four voices. This arrangement, therefore, sounds much more natural and more straightforward, right from the opening Overture, which sounds wonderfully graceful, a characteristic that applies to the whole suite.

This is, perhaps, the only one of the orchestral suites where this arrangement would work: you’d miss the trumpets and drums of 3 and 4, and the flute and strings are critical to the texture of No. 2. Work it does, though, and so, indeed, does this whole disc. It goes without saying that it’s beautifully played throughout, and the Supraphon sound is delightfully intimate. The Goldbergs observe no repeats, and there are only very occasional repeats in the Suite, but that somehow feels right.

Simon Thompson

Jac Souček (oboe), Jan Mach (clarinet), Karel Dohnal (basset horn), Václav Vonášek (bassoon)

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