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Glittering Goldberg


Emmanuel Music recently recorded for online sharing Bernard Labadie’s arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in the main sanctuary of Emmanuel Church where they are ensemble-in-residence. Labadie, a Canadian conductor/composer is a preeminent conductor of the Baroque and Classical repertoire. He is founder of Les Violons du Roy and the professional choir La Chapelle de Québec, and has guest conducted most of the major US orchestras.

The streaming package also includes a talk by pianist Simone Dinnerstein, whose recording of the Goldbergs garnered enormous acclaim. She spoke [HERE] mainly about the structure of the variations, all of which were based on the 32-measure Aria’s bass line. She reminded us that between the opening and concluding statements of the Aria come 30 variations, thus totaling 32 movements, each 32 measures long [or so it sounds…it seems that three variations in 12/8 are 16-measures long and the French Overture runs 48 measures.]. The variations fall into groups of three: overture and various dance forms, virtuosic pieces probably written for two manual playing, and finally, canon form which she illustrated by playing snippets from a set of three variations. [BMInt reviewed her “colorized” take on the set in company with A Far Cry HERE.]

Michael Sponseller played the Aria on the harpsichord, with single strings and continuo joining him on the repeat. Labadie’s orchestration highlighted the character of each movement, ranging from single strings/continuo to full orchestra (7 violins, 2 viola, 2 cello, bass, theorbo, and almost always audible harpsichord). This brought to mind the NY City Ballet performance of the Goldbergs where the choreography and costumes reflected the mood of the aria and each variation.

The Emmanuel musicians showed virtuosity nothing short of amazing. Violists Mark Berger and Joan Ellersick, and cellist Sarah Freiberg gave particular pleasures. Violinist Heidi Braun-Hill likewise displayed brilliance, though this reviewer heard excessive romanticism, in her playing of the Aria, especially in the general context of restraint and Baroque practice. One wonders if the Emmanuel talent wouldn’t have been better displayed if the lead violin parts in variations had gone to other members of their talented group, such as Danielle Maddon and Jesse Irons; Maddon’s noteworthy contribution including particularly fine articulation in var. 23.  Thanks to the effective ministrations of music director Ryan Turner, and despite the necessity to observe Covid-19 social distancing, the ensemble achieved cohesiveness, and faithfulness to its tradition of playing period music with modern instruments, except where the composition required special timbre such as recorders. Overall, the affect hewed to Baroque tradition, offering little if any vibrato, restrained phrasing and dynamics, measured rubato, etc.

The audio engineers did a great job of balancing warm ambience with clear detail. The videography, though, suffered from the need for social distancing, resulting in unfortunately dull lighting of violists relegated to the pews, and excessive concentration on the 1st violin in duet or ensemble numbers. On the other hand, expressive, on-the beat cutting among many cameras worked with the music, and closeups of the 14 individuals, especially of Freiberg, detailed the amazing techniques in navigating this satisfying journey.

All in all, a favorite black and white movie suddenly appeared colorized. In re-imagining the concert experience, the ensemble is on the right track for this at-home era.

NB: This review received a post-publication tweak.

John Hsia is an amateur musician, and an ardent supporter of music [including Emmanuel Music] and music education; he worked in engineering and taught it for a few years after retirement. 

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