It is either an exceptionally brave or intensely na´ve move to attempt to arrange not only a work by unsurpassed Baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach, but a work that looms large in the musical canon and popular consciousness of the last three centuries. Nonetheless, Dmitry Sitovetsky's transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations for string trio is, with little exception, a worthy equal of the original keyboard version, flawlessly presented in concert by Julian Rachlin (violin), Maxim Rysanov (viola) and Mischa Maisky (cello).
Bach's Aria with 30 variations, published in 1741 is more commonly identified Goldberg variations, reliant mostly on anecdotal evidence from Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach's first biographer. He relates that Count Kaiserling, on a visit to Leipzig, asked Bach for some music to soothe his insomnia. Bach obliged with the variations for two-manual harpsichord, first played by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who was in the service of the count, and whose name has since remained attached.
This arrangement is sensitively transcribed, breathing life into each line, on its own a thing of beauty, through the captivating expressiveness of string timbre. It was unfortunate that one variation the players were obliged to use pizzicato, for it made the variation stand out in what was otherwise an uninterrupted celebration of Bach's magnificent structure.
The performance too, was utterly absorbing, and perfectly judged in terms of balance and tone. Whilst each performer has an illustrious solo career of their own, covering practically every major orchestra, conductor and prestigious venue and festival between them, the precise and thoughtful ensemble they form is breathtaking. Entirely comfortable with one another, the intricate contrapuntal lines of each variation mingled and diverged effortlessly; the livelier canons were infused with sufficient energy to thrill without overpowering; the minor key variations were intensely dark and brooding without ever losing sense of the overarching scope of the work.
Vibrato was mercifully kept to minimum: the purity of Rachlin's violin, the rich resonant bass of Maisky's cello, married with the dusky tones of Rysanov's viola transported me, for one, into the serenity of the piece. Unusually the lights were dimmed over the audience, perhaps to add a flavour of the work's legendary origins to the concert, and following the final Aria da capo, the lights over the stage too faded away. After the richly deserved standing ovation, I was only disappointed there was no more.
Read recent concert reviews, including the UK premiere of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane and Lang Lang in recital, here.