That Bach composed his revered Goldberg Variations as part of his Clavier Übung (keyboard practice) series attests to his vision of the set as central to keyboard training and performance. Despite the strong keyboard identification however, the Goldbergs have been repeatedly transcribed. On Monday Robyn Bollinger, violin, Wenhong Luo, viola and Sujin Lee, cello performed Sitkovetsky’s string trio version as part of the Lifetime Learning of Newton Community Education concert series at Newton/Andover Theological Seminary’s Wilson Chapel.
Every third of the 30 variations that follow after The Goldberg’s main theme (“Aria”) is a canon, where the two upper voices are in sequential imitation and the low voice serves as accompaniment. Three voices, then ideally fit for string trio. Several of the remaining variations feature two voices that encompass the keyboard range—again, ideal for sharing among three instruments, which between them cover approximately the compass of the harpsichords used in Bach’s time. Dispersed throughout the 30 variations are hand crossings. These create delightful challenges for the string instruments. In one moment notes played by one hand on the piano may be handled by the cello, and in the next, by the violin.
The performers shared and communicated a single vision, conversing most naturally, for instance, in the opening Aria. The cello and viola joined the violin in its poignant expression of the theme rather than accompanying it, and the disposition among three string players allowed the audience to follow both visually and aurally individual voices more easily than on a single keyboard.
Unlike a keyboard, a bowed instrument can crescendo on a single note. Our trio made great use of this asset in bringing out the drama inherent in these variations. Of note was variation XVIII where the violin and viola’s abilities to bring out the held notes which open the canon made the interaction, yet the autonomy of the two voices utterly transparent. Another important variation is XXV, the longest of the set, and by far its most tragic. Here the violin leads, with the opening statement featuring two rising minor sixths. The violin’s ability to sustain its high note (admirably projected by Robyn Bollinger) proved key in evoking the sorrow and sadness that we imagine Bach hand in mind.
The players also expertly met those instances in which string instruments are at a disadvantage when playing a piece transcribed from keyboard. For example, a natural keyboard gesture is the 32nd-note turns in Variation XIV. These were executed flawlessly, particularly by Sujin Lee on the cello where it is most challenging to maintain a light tone. In the post-concert Q&A Wenhong Luo (the group’s violist) spoke of the many rapid scales as presenting a particular challenge to the string players. Again, these seemed to present no problem (i.e., the suave runs of Variation VI). And it is fairly self-evident that the exchange of thematic material between two hands belonging to one performer is less daunting psychologically and technically than the same passage shared between two string players performing on two different instruments. Yet we found the players undeterred by such intricacies (i.e., variation 1, essentially a two-part invention).
Variation XXV is the longest of the 30, one of only three in a minor key and arguably the emotional centerpiece of the set. Yet after XXV, Bach’s reach for ever greater intellectual and emotional variety continues. Variation XXVI is a toccata where the rapid 16th-note accompaniment to the slow stately theme, switches swiftly among instruments. The 30th and final variation forms a Quodlibet, a pastiche of popular tunes. Bach embeds them in a four-voice counterpoint that evokes a solemn procession. Before concluding, the Aria is heard one more time—its grandeur and stateliness becoming deeper, more touching, and more profound.
Himself an avid arranger of other’s compositions, Bach would probably have approved heartily of what we heard on Monday. That the string trio arrangement worked so well testified yet again to the strength and durability of his music.