The Goldbergs with strings attached…

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents:


J.S.BACH (arr. W.Cowdery) – Goldberg Variations BWV 988

New Zealand String Quartet

Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilmann (violins) / Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn Road, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 22nd May, 2013

I wouldn’t dream of going so far as to say that I NEVER, EVER want to hear the Goldberg Variations played on a keyboard instrument again – but all the while the New Zealand String Quartet was performing this work in an arrangement made by Bach scholar (and harpsichordist!) William Cowdery, I was transported, wafted into a world of enchantment from which all keys, jacks, hammers and pedals – anything remotely percussive – had been removed.

Or so it seemed, at the time, to me. The next day, I played my Glenn Gould recording of the work, performed, of course, on a piano, and was, to some extent, reconverted. But it’s a measure of the durability and flexibility of Bach’s music that, when presented on instruments of completely different sound-character, it seems to envelop timbre, texture and tone, and make the instrument (or instruments) seem utterly and indisputably appropriate to the occasion.

I had heard the NZSQ play this work before, in Upper Hutt, and remembered at that time being both intrigued and impressed – though on that occasion the impact of it all was, I think, diluted by having another work on the program, Elgar’s Piano Quintet. Here, in the softer, more homely and intimate setting of St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, the “String-Goldbergs” filled both time and space with sounds which, even more than the last time round, seemed to fuse both craft and content into a symbiosis of beauty and feeling.

What the string quartet version seemed to me to allow was a contrapuntal partnership of equals which the solo keyboard versions I’ve heard don’t emulate in the same way – having both the strength and individuality of a single player to a voice makes for a more dynamic kind of interaction of parts than a single player at a keyboard can provide. With two, sometimes three, and occasionally all four players committed wholly to the notes, to matters of technique, timbre, intellectual overview and emotional expression, the music’s amplitude is enriched to what I felt was a compelling degree.

As expected, the players of the New Zealand String Quartet were wholly taken up with and set aglow by the bringing together of these different elements, and reinterpreting the music’s world. Even an injured Helene Pohl was able to contribute a characteristically heartfelt first-violin line as required, astonishingly redistributing the fingerings of her parts to avoid using a recently-damaged little finger. The process made not one whit of difference to her usual vibrancy and focus – a mere handful of notes not quite in tune still resonated with that intensely musical quality particularly her own.

Here are a few thoughts regarding some of the individual variations and their place in the whole – from the outset, the group adopted a “whiter”, more austere tone than I’ve previously heard from them, effective as an opening statement of intent, a “surface” that suggested both order and contained expressive potential. From the dignity of this opening Sarabande, we were energized by the polonaise rhythm of the first variation, its running lines reminiscent of the Third Brandenburg Concerto’s finale – the repeat featured some delicious variations of tone, the lines having an engaging “stand-alone” quality, more so than with the keyboard version, though still as integrated.

As mentioned above, not all the variations used all four players, a textural device which, as happens with both piano and harpsichord, gives the music contrasting densities – so the Canon of the third variation, with its two-violin interaction and ‘cello bass line created spaces which, in the succeeding Passepied, the extra player joyously filled, excitingly amplifying the sound-picture.

Sometimes an individual player stole the show, as did Doug Beilmann with the “schwung” of his figuration’s rhythms in the Gigue of No.7 – at other times it was the interaction between the musicians which gave real pleasure, as when Gillian Ansell’s viola cheekily finished off Rolf Gjesten’s ‘cello phrases at the line-ends of the following Variation (No.9). Then, in the following Canon everybody had a part to play in the music’s strolling grandeur, the players (I fancied) smiling with the pleasure of it all.

The trio of variations that concluded the work’s first part were worlds in themselves, the playing bringing out by turns the music’s propensities towards delight and sorrow. No.13’s Sarabande had a kind of “heavenly length” quality, combining serenity with a mellifluous character, the occasional  “catch” in the instruments’ throats on certain strings adding to the intensities. The Toccata was a clever-witted philosopher between two poets, his élan further honing the melancholy of No.15’s Canon, its wistful, questioning phrases played with wonderful poise by the ensemble, in readiness for what was still to come.

I so relished the players’ presentation of the “Grand Overture” which began the second part of the work – all very celebratory, and “orchestral” in style, though never generalized as such, but always with “point” and plenty of variation. (Incidentally, from this point on my notes began to voluminously grow!). Again there was conveyed throughout the work’s second part a kind of “joy of interaction” among the players, the two-part  No.17 Toccata (arranged among three instruments, here) brimful of lines eagerly looking to interact with their counterparts. The following Canon represented a kind of fruition of this with Rolf Gjelsten’s ‘cello dancing in counterpoint with two singing violins – and if the succeeding No.19 charmed us with pizzicato-voiced dance-impulses, the following Toccata stimulated our impulsive leanings with the players’ exciting alternations of pizzicato and whirling bowed triplets!

So much more to describe! – but one must resist most of the remaining blandishments and concentrate instead on the great Adagio of the 25th Variation – the violin’s anguished leading line like a bird hovering above the ocean of the lower instruments’ sombre counterpoints. Here, the violin’s bird brought to us something of the feeling of the “immensity of human sorrow” while holding fast to the skein stretched across vast distances to the lower instruments’ quiet, oceanic certainty – a kind of depiction, I thought, of both the solitariness and surety of spiritual faith, on the composer’s part.

Several other rich and vibrant variations later came the celebrated Quodlibet (a Latin term for “whatever” or “what pleases”), the last . This featured Bach’s droll synthesis of two German folk-songs (how wonderful to contemplate those woods “Cabbages and turnips have driven me away” in this context!), the players enjoying the music’s mix of friendly rivalry and adroit partnership. And, quite suddenly, it seemed, at the end, there it was – with the return of the opening Aria, it felt to us as though the music was coming home once again, having undergone its own solar orbit and experienced many world-turnings, both interactive and solitary. Now, the players’ tones seemed more in accord than counterpointed, more fulfilled than striving, more fused than disparate. Here, we in the audience were being given the well-wrought strains of sounds approximating to a divine order, a ray of serenity from chaos. We held onto those strains as best we could, but in the end we had to let them go.

Much acclaim and very great honour to the New Zealand String Quartet players! – through their sensibilities and skills we were able to coexist, for a short time, with a kind of transcendental awareness of things, by way of music whose being somehow seemed to accord with our own existence.

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