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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Samuele Telari (accordion)
rec. Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 25-27 August 2020
DELPHIAN DCD34257 [45.20 + 47.35]

While the nineteenth century saw the consolidation and expansion of the traditional symphony orchestra as the principal preoccupation of classical composers, the twentieth century saw a different kind of expansion as mainstream composers began to exploit the potential of folk instruments from various countries. The guitar soon transcended its Spanish origins (and natural reticence of sound) to establish itself in orchestral scores from Mahler’s Seventh Symphony onwards, and the increased sonority afforded by the electric guitar has now become not uncommon as a feature of modern orchestral scores. Similarly Mahler appropriated the mandolin from Italian traditional music, most memorably in the final section of Das Lied von der Erde, and from Schoenberg onwards it became for a period almost a fixation in German instrumentation. The Hungarian cymbalom, already featured by native composers such as Kodály, was also enthusiastically seized upon by Stravinsky and others. But at the same time other instruments from the folk tradition, such as the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle or the Viennese zither, have been limited to concertos where they are featured, or other works in the more popular tradition.

The case of the accordion has been somewhat different. In the first place, its original tradition in German folk bands and French cafés was a relatively recent phenomenon; and like its near contemporary the saxophone it has carved out a niche for itself in circles closely associated with popular rather than classical music. Most regrettably of all (at least to my mind) it infiltrated itself into Celtic folk traditions (both Irish and Scottish) where it usurped the place traditionally occupied by the pipes and the harp; and since the construction of the instrument itself encouraged the adoption of European classical harmonic traditions, this usage effectively served to undermine the peculiar nature of Celtic harmonies in the many folk bands that played to enthusiastic audiences.

It was only after the Second World War that a new school of accordion players emerged who brought to light a new vision for the manner in which their instruments could be more artistically employed. Many of the newly constructed instruments abandoned the system of left-hand keys which imposed pre-determined harmonies on the melodies they played, and there soon emerged a whole new ethos where music of considerable complexity and elaboration could be delivered by a new generation of players. There has been a resulting rush of new works for the instrument, many of them highly attractive and original and including a whole batch of new concertos featuring the accordion and its Latin American offspring the bandoneon. And at the same time the instrument has proved that it is capable of tackling quite extensive pieces from the traditional classical repertoire.

The music of Bach has always, of course, been a happy hunting ground for modern instrumentalists looking for enjoyment in baroque pastures, and versions of Bach’s lute suites and other keyboard works have long become a field for exploration by guitarists as much as pianists. But this is the first occasion on which I have encountered one of Bach’s major keyboard works, originally written for a harpsichord or clavichord, given on the accordion although I have on occasion heard individual organ works so delivered. In order to encompass Bach’s wide-ranging Goldberg Variations, the instrument has to be quite elaborately reconstructed and the accordion that Samuele Telari is shown holding on the cover of this CD is clearly a long way removed from the traditional German and French tradition (one might have welcomed some further information about what is described on the CD cover as “Telari’s instrument”). But the most vital question, of course, is not the nature of the innovation itself, but whether it works.

And it does, I am both surprised and delighted to report. It is clear that the performer has to take care in negotiating some of Bach’s more elaborate keyboard textures; the result is an interpretation that can sometimes seem on the slow side, especially when contrasted to the practices of some modern ‘period instrument’ specialists. But then there is certainly no reason that Bach always has to be performed at a virtuoso pace, and if the story of the origins of the work as a sort of sleeping draught to lull an insomniac Count into a state of repose is to be credited, then a slow and restful sort of delivery might well be just what the physician ordered.

Moreover, the instrument itself seems to be ideally suited to many sections of the score. Unlike the harpsichord (or indeed the piano) the accordion is a sustaining instrument, which means that it can bring a sense of line to passages which can so easily disintegrate in the hands of so many keyboard players. And at the same time it has a sense of intimacy which can easily be lost in a wash of acoustic resonance if the variations are played on the organ. The informative and entertaining booklet notes by Andrew Mellor admit that some adjustment has to be made to the treatment of Bach’s actual notes to ensure the clarity of the contrapuntal lines. But at the same time, and most importantly of all, the instrument itself enables the individual lines to be differentiated and characterised in a manner that not only serves the music itself but also provides entertaining and provocative touches of its own. The articulation and dynamic shadings in Variation 14, for example (CD1, track 15) are quite extraordinarily effective in a manner that I cannot imagine being challenged by any other instrument. The subtlety achieved here certainly surpasses anything available through changes of registration on either the organ or the harpsichord.

The sustained nature of some of the writing in these variations (and not just the celebrated No 25) leads me generally to prefer performances on the piano to those on the harpsichord despite the stylistic and period incongruities; but the superlative interpretation here not only trumps the possibilities available even to the most expressive of pianists, but also enables the filigree fleetness of touch in many of the quicker variations to astonish and delight the listener. In fact this is a very considerable achievement, not merely in adapting Bach’s harpsichord techniques to a new medium, but also as a musical experience in its own right; and it thoroughly deserves to be assessed as such, irrespective of any reservations about period performance.

Even the extravagant layout over two CDs makes perfect sense when the break serves to render distinct Bach’s own division in the score. And the two discs are available for the price of one, so there can be no cause for complaint on that basis either.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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