Few large scale works, I believe, have been played and recorded in so many different versions as Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The work was published in 1741 and on the title page Bach specified that it was intended for harpsichord, more precisely a two-manual harpsichord and he also specified which variations should be played with one hand on each manual. Many of the existing recordings are also played, as intended, on a harpsichord. The very first recording, as far as I know, was however on a piano. In 1928, or thereabouts, Rudolf Serkin set it down Welte-Mignon piano rolls. The harpsichord pioneer Wanda Landowska made her first recording in 1933 and returned to the work in 1945 and then there was a steady stream of harpsichord recordings from the likes of Ralph Kirkpatrick, Gustav Leonhardt, Karl Richter, Helmut Walcha, to name but a few, while a similar number of piano versions also graced the catalogues, most legendary Glenn Gould, who recorded it twice in the studio and there is also a filmed version – unless it is the same as his second version –that was shown quite recently on Swedish television. But besides this there have been versions for accordion, Organ (Jean Guillou), guitar, two guitars, harp, string trio, string orchestra, brass quintet, jazz trio (Jacques Loussier), marimba, two pianos, prepared piano, choir and baroque ensemble and period strings and continuo. There are others as well. I am familiar with only a fraction of these versions and am not sure I want to hear them all. A couple of harpsichord versions (including Swiss Christiane Jaccottet’s recording from the early 1970s, which was my first contact with this music), a lovely piano version by Lucia Negro and the string trio version by Dmitry Sitkovetsky, played by the Swedish trio Cecilia Zilliacus (violin), Johanna Persson (viola), Kati Raitinen (cello). I am fond of all three and with last year’s riveting recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with Henning Kraggerud in fresh memory, I was hoping to get another revelation. And so it turned out to be.
The string trio version has been dear to me ever since I heard it live several years ago and immediately bought the CD. The strings lends a beauty to the melodies that is vastly superior to the piano, however lovely the playing of Lucia Negro is. At the same time the music retreats stylistically from what Bach could have intended or even imagined, even though he wasn’t unfamiliar to adopt and rewrite other composers’ works. I believe baroque composers were quite liberal in that respect. I also can believe that Bach would have appreciated the fuller sonorities of a piano in relation to the crisper but comparatively simplistic harpsichord sound. Compared to the string trio version, the full string orchestra treatment delivers a wider dynamic spectrum and greater contrasts. Diehard baroque purists may not care much for this version, and I don’t believe that they are the principal target group for Kraggerud. He rather wants to prove that Bach’s music belongs to our time, that it is universal. We don’t necessarily need to hear the great American songs from the 30s and 40s in the original arrangements (but they sometimes do have a quite irresistible period flavour).
The opening aria in Kraggerud’s version (I know that the arrangement is a joint venture with him and Bernt Simen Lund) has a built in beauty and concentration through the superlative playing of the orchestra. Then the almost wild variation 1, rhythmically alert, comes as a veritable shock. It is a kind of equivalent some of the heftier readings on the Vivaldi disc. It may not be exaggerated but there is an extra twist that is illuminating. Listen for instance to Variation 8, which dances as though the indication in the score were pesante robusto. As a contrast – the readings are full of contrasts – Variation 9 is elevated and noble, Variation 10 is powerful and dark, Variation 12 is energetic and in both Variation 13 and 14 pizzicato playing lends distinction to the music. The 15th variation, which concludes the first half, is possibly the most magical of them all. It is a kind of lament, and Glenn Gould said of it: “It's a piece so moving, so anguished—and so uplifting at the same time—that it would not be in any way out of place in the St. Matthew's Passion; matter of fact, I've always thought of Variation 15 as the perfect Good Friday spell." The orchestral version places it even more convincingly in the company.
I was also impressed by the strength and intensity of the Ouverture (Variation 16) and thought Variation 18 is Bach’s answer to Pachelbel’s Canon, which in the 1970s almost became a hit and I remember it from Werner Herzog’s film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, where it accompanied a scene when a lot of people were climbing a mountain in search of Kaspar. Other high-spots in the score are the adagio (Variation 25), sounding decidedly modern, and the beautiful Variation 30. I believe that for many listeners who are not particularly interested in baroque music this could be a gateway to the world of Bach and hopefully inspire some of them to go on exploring other facets of his oeuvre.
In the bargain they will also get to learn the brand new composition Topelius Variations by Kraggerud, premiered as recently as May last year (2017), by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra in Finland, the nearest musical institution to Nykarleby, the town on Western Finland where Zachris Topelius (1818 – 1898) was born. Topelius was a central figure in 19th century Finnish literature, writing essays, poems, fairy-tales and children’s stories, but also historical works of great importance. A parallel was Denmark’s H C Andersen and in some way Norwegian born dramatist Ludvig Holberg (1684 – 1754), whom Edvard Grieg commemorated in his From Holberg’s Time. There Grieg based his suite on 18th century dances. Kraggerud likewise harks back on the musical language that surrounded Topelius more than one hundred years later, but moulds it through the eyes of his own time. It is melodious, folkmusic like, it dances and is expertly orchestrated. It is built on two themes that reflect the duality of Topelius, who was “torn between idealistic innocence and a more complicated and almost demonic side, while the modulating parts between describes his doubts and fears”, as Kraggerud is quoted saying in Andrew Mellor’s highly informative liner notes. The music is utterly accessible and it seems that it is the idealistic innocence of Topelius that gets the last word. The piece ends in soft harmony.
Every time I hear the Arctic Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra they stand out as one of the really great ensembles around. The playing throughout is assured, the precision and the rhythmical acuity is superb and the enthusiasm is tangible. This latest disc is a feather in the cap for the orchestra, Kraggerud himself and Johann Sebastian Bach, who seems at home in whatever company.
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