Australian Chamber Orchestra. Adelaide Town Hall. 7 Aug 2018
Bach’s Goldberg Variations (often simply referred to as ‘the Goldbergs’) comprise an ‘aria’ followed by thirty diverse variations and then a repeat of the original aria. The whole composition, which clocks in at around seventy-five minutes depending on the tempo taken by the soloist, is almost solely (monotonously) in the key of G, and the variations are based on the bass line of the aria rather than the delicately lovely melody line. It was originally written for a two-manual harpsichord but is better known and appreciated when played on piano.
Famed Canadian pianist Glenn Gould shot to fame with his iconic 1955 recording of the Goldbergs, which is relatively brisk and omits many of the repeats. Since then, the Goldbergs have been re-expressed in many different instrumental arrangements – some work, others don’t – but those that do keep the counterpoint clear and unfussed. Tonight’s arrangement by Canadian composer Bernard Labadie for string orchestra and continuo (comprising harpsichord and theorbo) does indeed work.
What’s a ‘theorbo’ I hear you ask? Well, it’s a bit weird, and this is the first time one has ever seen one. It’s from the lute family, and has two peg boards and fourteen strings. It’s a handful!
In the hands of Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra (with Erin Helyard on harpsichord and Axel Wolf on theorbo), Labadie’s arrangement shares the dialogue around and makes sparing use of tutti. The occasional use of knocked-cello percussion and pizzicato adds to the interesting palette of sound textures and allows the relationship between the voices in the original to be clearly heard. Having said that, Tognetti on violin makes the most impact with his artful performance of the aria, but that is entirely predictable – after all, the aria is the best bit, and it does bookend the entire composition. Having the first and last word is an advantage!
The Goldbergs dominate the evening’s program, but they are prefaced by three other compositions that don’t sit easily together. The highlight of the evening is Tognetti’s own arrangement of a set of fourteen additional variations to the Goldbergs written by Bach but not discovered until 1974. Entitled Canons on a Goldberg Ground, the composition uses piano rather than harpsichord and the whole thing has a modern feel about it, confirming that the Goldbergs sound so much better on piano than harpsichord.
Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet arranged for a small string ensemble have an almost supernatural and unsettling quality about them. The ACO plays them with an uncompromising tautness that keeps one leaning forward in one’s seat wishing for the music to resolve into something more soothing. This is followed by the first movement, Nightfalls, from Thomas Adès’ The Four Quarters. It too is unsettling with various sections of the ensemble striving to achieve prominence, but only with temporary success – like one star struggling to appear on the black canvas of a night skyscape but being replaced just as quickly by another. And with the fading of Nightfalls emerges the Goldbergs.
There is never a dull moment with the Australia Chamber Orchestra.
When: 7 Aug
Where: Adelaide Town Hall