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BACH-SITKOVETSKY: Goldberg Variations – Britten Sinfonia /Thomas Gould – Harmonia mundi

BACH-SITKOVETSKY: Goldberg Variations BWV 988 – Britten Sinfonia /Thomas Gould – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807633, 72:53 (3/10/15) ****:

What an interesting disc! We have the familiar Goldberg Variations by Bach, originally written for harpsichord in 1741, here in a lovely transcription by Dmitry Sitkovetsky, composed in 1985 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birth. Sitkovetsky was inspired by the now legendary piano recording by Glenn Gould which was released in 1981.

The Variations are named for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who may have been the person to premier the work. The work begins, as most know, with an aria, followed by 30 variations.

I’m usually ambivalent on transcriptions. Sometimes they work very well, such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition transcription of the Ravel, originally written for keyboard, yet fully realized for orchestra. With other transcriptions, I keep hearing the original and am troubled by the musical conversion.

In this case, everything is roses. To my ear the transcriptions work very well. They sound as if they had been written for orchestra. Also notable, is that Gould’s own ‘quirks’ in his interpretation of the Goldberg Variations are transferred to this performance. Parts of the Variations are played at breakneck speed, perhaps easier at the piano than by a string orchestra, but it’s magnificently performed here by the Britten Sinfonia. directed by Thomas Gould. The scoring really preserves the textures of Bach’s work, and it’s fully suited to this magnificent transcription.

The 5.0 recording is very nice, with strings nicely rendered on the SACD layer. There’s just slight sheen of ambiance in the rear channels, which is proper for this kind of music. Details are never lost in this recording, but instruments are not overly spotlighted either. The strings blend wonderfully into a cohesive whole, yet the left to right image is very nicely reproduced. The stereo CD layer folds everything forward to the front speakers. The strings aren’t quite as liquid sounding, but it’s still a fine recording.

I suppose that one could argue that the tension of playing this complex work is gone when it’s taken away from the keyboard and replaced by a string orchestra, but I found this recording and performance wholly satisfying.

—Mel Martin

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