There was a palpable buzz in the air at A Far Cry’s home base, St, John’s Church in Jamaica Plain. A large crowd jockeyed for seating in the pews, as A Far Cry’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Aria with Diverse Variations, BWV 988, better known as the Goldberg Variations, was about to begin. Guest pianist Simone Dinnerstein had ignited her solo career by studying Bach’s greatest keyboard composition during her pregnancy and financing her own recording of it in 2007. And together, they treated us to an artful variation on the Variations, at many points casting new light on an old favorite.
For a person who never traveled more than 250 miles from his birthplace, Bach had one of Western civilization’s most far-reaching imaginations. He absorbed a wide range of musical influences, taking in Vivaldi’s virtuosic violin technique; the otherworldly choral counterpoint of Palestrina and Schütz; Zelenka’s ambitious sense of scale and wild, woolly dissonances; and the world of Lutheran church music, among many others, to generate his own distinctive style. According to crier Alex Fortes, this may be the reason Bach’s music has adapted itself so well to a variety of arrangements and orchestrations. Fortas explained that the Criers sought to highlight those influences by realizing the trio sonata here, the string concerto there, even a bit of a cappella motet.
The group filed onto the stage, Dinnerstein at the center, with her back to the audience, sitting at a gleaming black Steinway grand with its lid off. For the arrangement, the group took advantage of Bach’s strictly constructed, fearful symmetries. The aria and each of the 30 variations have an A section which is eight to sixteen measures long and gets repeated, then a B response which is of the same length, and also repeated. In this arrangement, credited to Criers Sarah Darling and Alex Fortes in collaboration with Dinnerstein, you’ll often have a segment where Dinnerstein plays largely alone, then the same segment is repeated with elaboration, doubling, or enriching of the texture with various members of the string orchestra. The B segment might be a mirror image with orchestration, then solo piano in the repeat, or the same structure as in the A section of pianist then orchestra. Whatever the disposition, you were constantly reminded of the variation’s core identity as a keyboard work, even as the strings swept it in other directions.
One of the advantages to orchestrating Bach’s solo keyboard music is that it becomes easier to hear the individual voices in the counterpoint. I grew familiar with Bach’s Musical Offering and Art of Fugue through orchestrations by Neville Marriner and Reinhard Goebel, and the variations in texture and sound differentiated the individual canons and fugues in a way that was much harder to appreciate when the music was played on a solo keyboard. In the Goldberg Variations, every third variation is a two-part canon, where one voice follows and imitates the other, starting at steadily increasing intervals from the first voice (so the third variation is a canon where the second voice enters at the same note, the sixth variation is a canon where the second voice enters a second up, the ninth variation has the second voice entering a third up, and so on until the 27th variation, where the second voice is a ninth up from the first voice). Each of the canons had call-and-response duets from individual soloists (often violists Jason Fisher and Frank Shaw), or different sections playing off of each other. The separate parts made it easier to see and hear the counterpoint, and the distribution of parts varied enough to keep things interesting.
It would be mind-numbing to cite every section of the piece, so I’ll limit myself to a few favorite moments. Variation 2 began with cellos and basses playing the bass line pizzicato alone, making it almost sound like jazz. And the pseudo-canon offered a chance for violin section leaders Robyn Bollinger and Alex Fortes to chase one another. In variation 5, Dinnerstein played the variation while individual string players would play a sharp attack on just one or two notes, going to extremes of high and low and bringing out figures with expert comic timing. The B section of variation 7 was played on violin, and the dotted rhythms were easier to hear as a hybrid pastorale-jig. The fughetta of Variation 10 was interpreted as a four-part string fugue, then echoed by the original keyboard version. Violist Dana Kelley joined on the bass line in Variation 13, sustaining lines that Bach cuts off to enrich the texture and generate the harmonies that are implied but not stated outright. And in Variation 15, the canon at the fifth, the strings tugged at every suspension, augmenting the harmonic unease.
Variation 16 opens the second half, and is titled Ouverture. With a string orchestra, it became a stately overture in the French style, with every regal dotted-rhythm gesture played for maximum effect, and the B section fughetta played at a bracing pace with beautiful contrapuntal clarity. The syncopation of left and right hands in variation 20 were split up between Bollinger, Fortes, and cellists, Michael Unterman and Hamilton Berry, so that each line pulled off the balancing act of being smooth scales in eighth notes, juxtaposed a sharp sixteenth beat off of each other. And the fast runs of triplets were exchanged in deft, virtuosic fashion by Bollinger and Fortes. Variation 22 is written in the alla breve or “cut time” signature which Bach usually uses to indicate Renaissance-style counterpoint, and the Criers surprised by singing the A section repeat with surprisingly excellent group sound and intonation (certainly better than most choruses could play it on strings, anyway).
And then there was variation 25, marked adagio, hinting at a much slower tempo than most of the rest of the piece, and chock full of suspensions and dissonant harmonies, leading Wanda Landowska to call it the “Black Pearl” variation. Dinnerstein played the A section alone, keeping the long slow line spinning so that it could clearly be heard as a solo air soaring over a series of increasingly harmonically unsettled bass chords. The repeat gave the tune to Robyn Bollinger, who made this work as a violin solo in a way I had never realized before. I wrote down the words “gypsy barcarolle” which doesn’t do justice to the stunning, restrained, soulful account that Bollinger gave to this dark interlude in an otherwise joyful work.
In the blaze of light that are the next five variations, the string players often held sustained lines while Dinnerstein showed off dazzling techniques with furious flashes of crisply articulated, harmonically secure sixteenth and thirty-second notes. And in Variation 28, Dinnerstein stood and plucked the strings inside the piano case, aiming for high harmonics and giving the piano an almost harp-like texture. Combined with lightly played strings, this made for an eerie, ghostly, hushed effect that you’d never manage on a keyboard instrument.
The final variation is a quodlibet, based on a form popular at Bach family gatherings, where the legends say the clan of composers would each sing one song or another, and try to make all the songs knit together contrapuntally. This quodlibet features two song fragments, one a fast moving up-and-down arch whose original words translate as “I have been so long away from you” (perhaps anticipating the reprise of the aria last heard over an hour ago), the other with a chorale-like tune which sings “Cabbage and beets have driven me away.” Assigning each tune to one string section and having Dinnerstein play the recurring bass line rendered the quodlibet with exemplary clarity.
In the score, Bach doesn’t write out the reprise, but simply marks “Aria da capo” (or opening air from the top). The ensemble orchestrated a little differently the second time around, with more of those sustained notes fleshing out harmonies, but with the final repeat, the strings died away, leaving Dinnerstein to finish the work as she had started it, alone at the keyboard.
One could take minor quibbles with this arrangement. In this church at least, some of the lower notes in the outnumbered viola section didn’t carry well into the audience. And one wonders how this might have sounded had they played with Bach’s original instrumentation of double-keyboard harpsichord; it was Glenn Gould’s landmark 1955 recording that made most of us associate this work with the modern piano.
The inscription goes on to describe the work as “prepared for the souls’ delight of music lovers.” Our souls delighted in the work as performed, and longed to continue travels of imagination. Perhaps another venue will project low notes of the outnumbered violas further. Kudos to Darling, Fortes, Dinnerstein, and the Criers for imagining this brilliant enlargement while remaining true to the spirit of the original inscription.
The Criers repeated the program on Sunday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Dinnerstein goes back on the road, with her tour schedule including solo Goldberg Variations performances in Montréal in June. A Far Cry returns on May 20, to Jordan Hall for an “All American” program featuring Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium” featuring guest Anthony Marwood.