Goldberg Variations (Bach, arranged by Cowdery); Piano Quintet in A minor (Elgar)
New Zealand String Quartet and Diedre Irons (piano)
Expressions Arts Centre, Upper Hutt. Monday 5 October 2009
The New Zealand String Quartet have had William Cowdery’s version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations under their belt for a couple of years though this was my first hearing.
The nature of Bach’s contrapuntal keyboard writing gives almost equal importance to all four voices as the melodies or themes pass from one to another.
The first impression of the performance is of clarity of lines; played on the harpsichord or piano the several voices are not nearly so distinct, and I found myself delighting in the individual timbres of the four, almost more striking than in most custom-written string quartets.
In addition to the pleasure of hearing the separate voices was that of hearing the inner voices of the quartet – Douglas Beilman’s second violin and Gillian Ansell’s viola, taking a more important part in the fabric than is normally the case with Haydn or Beethoven quartets. Many of the variations are for two and three parts while the other instrument(s) stand(s) idly by, and it was a treat to hear Beilman’s warm and fluid playing in many of these. The cello is quite prominent in many traditional quartets but Rolf Gjelsten too must have relished making such prominent statements.
The effect was most marked in the canons and fugues, such as Variation 10 when the theme began in the cello and moved up.
Furthermore, the four instruments could obviously create far more interesting dynamic contrasts than is available on the harpsichord, or even on the piano; and they seemed to highlight the varied rhythms though, as I found later when I refreshed my memory with a harpsichord recording, that rhythm was not as piquant and alert.
It is illuminating to have programme notes that draw attention to the time signatures and the dance rhythms of each variation, though I have seen other sets of notes that are rather more detailed. The work was called by Bach ‘Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen’ (Aria with diverse variations) – the Goldberg story is doubtless apocryphal – and it is in fact a compendium of most of the dance forms – German, French, Italian, English – that Bach would have known, and there is always the diversion of working out the exact nature of the rhythm of each variation if the work were to become at all tedious – which of course it doesn’t.
It opens with an Aria, the statement of the melody very slowly. It seemed slower than it does on piano or harpsichord, but I think that was an illusion as a result of the greater tonal variety presented. The four string players thus seemed to extract more of the melodic beauty from it.
On the other hand, there’s always a price to pay. I later listened to Gustav Leonhardt’s harpsichord recording of the work, expecting to find it dry and colourless by comparison. Not at all: even though shorn of repeats (perhaps because of), I found this more monochrome performance thoroughly engaging, like a musical stroll along a windswept coast. At the hands of such a gifted player, the plucked notes of the harpsichord sharpen the rhythmic character, enliven the pulse and substitute rhythmic vitality for the richer timbres of the strings. While I’d like to add this string quartet version to my ever-growing desert island, I-Pod collection, I won’t be deleting either of the already loaded piano or a harpsichord versions from it.
Elgar’s Piano Quintet could hardly have offered a more different world.
It’s not a piece that seems characteristic of Elgar for he was not a piano composer; yet from the start, the quintet sounds highly idiomatic, the piano part integrated comfortably with the string quartet.
The players approached the beginning with a rather engaging hesitancy which heightened the emergence of the big, very Elgarian, first movement tune which put its stamp on it. With that and later very conspicuous tunes, it’s a wonder the quintet is not better known.