Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s arrangement of the Goldberg Variations
for string orchestra (Nonesuch 79341-2) is one of my “desert
island” discs. The lightness, freshness and elation of the performance
by the NES Chamber Orchestra are irresistible. That orchestral
arrangement was born out of the string trio one that Sitkovetsky
did in 1984. The original trio version (review)
seemed not quite at the same level of excitement. It walked
the ground rather than flew over it. It seems that Sitkovetsky
had a similar impression, and so in 2009 he revised his trio
arrangement, including some afterthoughts and the experience
of many years of performing. It is this new version that we
hear on the present recording, and it comes from arranger’s
(Update: After this review was published, I realized
that my relative disappointment with the older version was most
probably caused by the specific performance/recording I was
reviewing, and not by the arrangement itself. For example, I
did not hear the the original recording of that version by Sitkovetsky
with Caussé and Maisky, which, as some say, is very engrossing
and illuminating. I feel bad for voicing such an unfounded speculation.
If anything, this is a good match to the orchestral edition.
Even if forced, I could not really choose between them. I have
reached the stage where I cannot live without both. The newcomer
is young and daring, as if the spirit of Glenn Gould lived in
it. Where the orchestral reading was softer and lighter, this
one is more sharp and vibrant. This is not “Bach For Relaxation”,
but a high-octane energy booster. If Count Keyserlingk would
really try this as a cure for insomnia, he’d probably stay awake
all night, so high is the caffeine level.
It all starts from the Aria: vibrant, full-voiced,
very expressive yet with a certain “white” delicacy. The variations
follow without pauses, which creates a forward-rolling feeling
of agitation and delight. All the layers of the counterpoint
are heard crystal clear. The slow variations are not rushed,
and get all the necessary air to breathe. The great Variation
25 has a throbbing pulse: no philosophy here, but very personal
sentiments. I don’t see a point in describing each track separately,
for together they sound so well-fit, like bricks in an accurately
crafted wall. This uniformity of presentation might be deemed
the only drawback of this recording, but I refuse to consider
it as such.
The violin’s voice is beautiful, the faithful viola is always
at the surface, and the cello provides a solid, affluent foundation.
Often the sound has orchestral weight and fullness. The arranger
applies pizzicato and other effects wisely and effectively;
everything is stylish and never crosses the line of good taste.
The acoustics are very spacious, the sound is palpable and the
music seems clad in bright gold - a true celebration!
Usually the Goldbergs occupy an entire disc, but here, because
of the generally fast tempi and the policy of omitting some
repeats in variations, we are left with enough room for a generous
bonus in form of 15 Sinfonias (aka the Three-Part
Inventions), also arranged by Sitkovetsky. This music may
be less known, but it is no less enjoyable, and adds novelty
to Bach’s inventiveness and Sitkovetsky’s skill. The arrangement
and the performance are on the same level as the Goldbergs,
with enthusiastic vigour, expressiveness and depth, while staying
low-cholesterol. These are little polyphonic gems, and in the
trio’s hands all voices are heard clearly yet do not get separated
in the sonic space – a true ensemble effect.
The music provides a rainbow of moods, and the performers colour
these works differently, finding the right temperature for each.
They work well together as a set. Note that Sitkovetsky changed
their original order, to alternate the minor and major modes
as much as possible. The performance is energetic yet not rushed.
The slow numbers breathe and sing. Like the Goldbergs, this
is music that grabs the attention; every moment is admirable.
A certain melodic closeness to Bach’s violin Sonatas and Partitas
only confirms how natural this arrangement sounds. Again, the
recording quality is excellent; the string lines appear like
bright electric threads over black velvet.
In both the Variations and the Sinfonias, moving from the “fading”
piano sound to the “steady” string voice has a definite advantage
in long notes. The music may lose the fragility and bravura
of the piano sound, but instead it becomes more singing. This
is good for some pieces, whose singing melodies now sound more
natural. After hearing it, one may think that it was the clavier
version that was the arrangement.
In the booklet Sitkovestky tells the story the arrangements.
To this Calum MacDonald supplements an as usual excellent and
extensive musical analysis. All in all, on this disc we meet
two glorious new Bach works for string trio. I cannot
imagine more gripping accounts. Everything in this recording
presents as a lasting work of art.