Can Bach’s famous keyboard variations actually be improved? No, but . . . it depends what you mean by “improved.” If given a fresh new perspective qualifies, then the answer, according to this CD, is a resounding Yes! Hearing three distinct voices instead of one truly enhances the experience of listening to this classic. So how did Dmitry Sitkovetsky transcribe it? Violin & viola for the right hand, cello for the left?
It would be nice if it were that simple. Sometimes the treble line involves the viola and violin, sometimes just the violin. In the case of Variation 19, Sitkovetsky does something quite impish. He sneaks pizzicato figures into the counterpoint mixture, so that when the violin and viola are conversing, the cello provides background plucking. But wait, that’s not all. A few bars later, the pizzicato is traded back and forth among the instruments, only to fade in and out of prominence. And it all happens in less than two minutes (so listen closely). Other dazzling feats occur in this performance. The centerpiece is the haunting Variation 25, the longest (7:39) adagio in the piece. Harpsichordist Wanda Landowska called it “the Black Pearl,” perhaps for its deeply affecting, melancholic beauty. The trioists inject it with an impressive array of dramatic techniques, like deft shifts from pianissimo to mezza-forte and slight shadings in tempo. It almost sounds like a string trio piece from the late classical period.
So why does this arrangement of the Goldberg Variations succeed so well? Apart from the players being world-class musicians, the structure of the piece lends itself to three instruments, not one. When played on keyboard instruments, the two upper voices are virtually indistinguishable. Yet listen to its canons (like Variation 27 for two voices) or the fughetta in Variation 10 (for three voices) and see how a string trio masters complex counterpoint with grace and wit. What would Bach have thought, if he could hear it today? He would have approved, I’m sure of it. He did his own arranging of Vivaldi’s organ concertos and added organ chords to his own solo violin pieces. There’s no place for purism in the works of Bach, so feel free to enjoy this CD without guilt.
— Peter Bates