This has been a banner year for J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (BWV 988). Friday at Jordan Hall, a clever arrangement for piano and strings devised by Criers Sarah Darling and Alex Fortes collaborating with pianist Simone Dinnerstein provided just the latest Boston variant on this piece made famously notable by harpso-pianist Wanda Landowska and then pianist Glenn Gould, who recorded it twice, in 1955 and 1981. Gould’s and Dinnerstein’s (2007) self-financed recordings thereof catapulted each to fame. The impressive Dinnerstein recalls “a moment of epiphany” hearing Glenn Gould play the Aria. “It just stopped me dead in my tracks. I really felt it was a moment of epiphany for me, hearing that.”
In his 2013 “Music in the Castle of Heaven,” John Eliot Gardiner railed against harpsichordist Karl Richter’s “thunderous” performance of the Goldbergs. “Here, as in so many of the live performances or recordings that I had access to, Bach came over as grim, somber… lacking in spirit, humor and humanity. Where was the festive joy and set in this dance-inflected music?”
In my concert-going, the answer to Gardiner’s query occurred in five festive permutations in the past six months in the Boston area alone, and in recordings, versions exist for harp, accordion, guitar, recorder quintet, accordion, woodwind quintet, and solo marimba. The Borromeo Quartet played (their first violinist) Nicholas Kitchen’s quartet arrangement last summer. (my review HERE). Sergey Schepkin gave a magisterial performance on both piano and harpsichord on his series “Glissando” in January. Last week, a string trio from Chameleon Arts Ensemble (Robyn Bollinger, violin, Scott Woolweaver, viola, and Raphael Popper-Keizer, cello) gave a beautiful reading and Friday night, at Jordan Hall, A Far Cry performed its version for piano and strings, breathing new life into these familiar variations with clever and occasionally inspired ideas. Jordan Hall was packed. I imagine I was the only person there dealing with Goldberg Overload.
After Sarah Darling talked on stage about how this version came into being, (“You take what’s implicit and lay it out… We made spread sheets of the 30 variations”) the concert began with a sparsely accompanied Aria, which proceeds the variations. Simone Dinnerstein played it soulfully and bewitchingly. It reminded me, in its molasses-slow tempo and lugubrious mood, of someone bidding a final farewell to a beloved friend. When the 30 dizzying variations, are over, this Aria, recurs, and it was, on Friday, enough to break your heart.
Darling elaborated:Every variation takes you to a different place. Not just in the character of its music: also with what’s implied. Some variations (well hello, French Overture) call out for massive, pompous forces. Others work so beautifully as a dance between two solo voices. Every single one was written for keyboard, though – and the thing that I don’t understand about so many Goldberg arrangements is that they are always “for” something else. All you see are the implications, but you don’t actually get to hear the beauty of the original source. So the idea behind this Goldberg arrangement pitch was to go all-out with a group that could do everything with its forces, both large and small – and to invite a pianist to the party, because OF COURSE. (Our hearts collectively stopped when Simone Dinnerstein, one of the great Goldberg interpreters, agreed to play with us)
The lid of the piano was taken off, and Dinnerstein sat with her back to the audience, the Criers surrounding her in a semi-circle, each with unblocked sight lines. It wasn’t until I heard the Crier’s download of the concert that I got to see her fingers and face, which, unsurprisingly, enhanced this performance.
The 30 variations, all based on a 32-bar bass-line and its implicit harmonies, yield up for Darling, “a wonderful cornucopia of states of being.” Each variation is given an extra personality and colors with its many additional string permutations. The ever-Democratic Criers- 7 Violins, 4 violas, 3 cellos, two basses) operate like Jack-in-the-boxes (although all but the cellists stand so the popping up takes place in who plays what). One never knows, within a variation and its repeats, or in separate variations, who will be playing what, and for how long. It might be one instrument, then joined up by colleagues in an unexpected dialogue, or several strings from different parts of the stage. Some edgy string techniques are deployed; the texture, and how you hear this long-familiar keyboard chestnut, is often exhilarating. The arrangers took the opportunity fun with all the repeats, and what is at first a bit disorienting often becomes strangely hypnotic.
The Goldberg’s faster movements were spirited, and the Criers and Dinnerstein played them with grace and gusto. Outstanding contributions came from the indefatigable and always-wonderful cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer (who played a different arrangement of this piece five days before); bassist Karl Doty, and violinist Annie Rabbat, whose long, concerto-like solo in in Variation 25 was excellent. The two double bass contributed mightily to the success of this arrangement, and I enjoyed having the piano float in and out of the music, like a sudden change in the weather.
My two favorite variations occurred when the arrangers took some chances. In the 22nd variation, Bach writes a series of suspensions over a descending baseline. One heard an almost inaudible hum from the Criers which broke out into the most amazing hymn-like chorus. I was astounded at the raw beauty of this unexpected- and beautifully sung- vocalise on the repeat of the first section through the second half. (On their video @ 1: 17) In the 28th variation, (Video @ 1:37) Dinnerstein stood, leaning over to plucked the piano’s strings (under where the lid would have been) while the ensemble strings deploy a variety of plucked sounds—pizzicato, sul ponticello bow strokes, and col legno (hitting the strings with the wood of the bow). The bell-like sound of the piano’s strings was my favorite moment of the concert (this reviewer, a harpist, wishes her instrument could sound like this!)
The Criers’ virtuosity and enthusiasm aside, what stays most remarkable about these variations is their individual ingenuity and their combined unity. You can’t sit through a performance like this arrangement and not be moved. The strings of A Far Cry played gorgeously, although at times the balance between them (in various numbers) and the piano sounded less than ideal. Dinnerstein played beautifully, dealing with the many Scarlatti-like hand-crossing with practiced ease. She has a somewhat Romantic, rubato-filled approach to Bach, especially in the slow movements; her playing and sound are very affecting. A serious bravo to Sarah Darling and Alex Fortes, and a big wow to both Simone Dinnerstein and A Far Cry for a terrific partnership.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.