Goldberg Variations from NZSO musicians with Stephen De Pledge – “a journey of life with its full gamut of emotions”

J.S.Bach – Goldberg Variations

(arranged for ensemble by Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Heribert Breuer)

Vesa-Matti Leppänen Director/Violin
Stephen De Pledge Fortepiano

Members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Wednesday, 22nd July 2020

Bach’s Goldberg Variations is one of the greatest, if not the greatest set of variations in the keyboard repertoire. Count Kaiserling, Elector of Saxony, commissioned Bach to write it for his protege, the young keyboard player, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. The work consists of thirty variations on a theme, an Aria, that Bach might have heard or found in his wife’s, Anna Magdalena’s, notebook. Playing this great work in an arrangement for harp, strings and wind players was challenging and perhaps controversial programming. For the purist meddling with such an iconic work is sacrilege. Over the years, however, there were many arrangements of these variations, for the modern piano, very different from the two keyboard harpsichord that Bach wrote the piece for, and for different combinations of instruments. Vesa-Matti Leppȁnen used a selection of arrangements for strings by the Russian violinist, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, and for other instruments of the orchestra by the German conductor Heribert Breuer.

This entailed re-imagining the work, employing sounds, timbres, that were outside the scope of a keyboard instrument. Right from the beginning, the beautiful Aria played by flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon, harp and strings was a haunting introduction to an amazing musical journey. Following the Aria, the first variation was played by Stephen de Pledge on a forte-piano, bringing out the phrasing and dynamic possibilities of the fortepiano, a new instrument in Bach’s time and not much to Bach’s liking. After the next two variations, a solo harp (Carolyn Mills)  introduced an entirely different and unexpected bell like sound. Variation 4 was a light-hearted dance movement played by the winds. This was followed by a wind chorale, demonstrating what striking beautiful sounds a combination of four wind instruments can produce. Then strings played a Gigue, a foot stomping dance that was never far from Bach’s world. Fugal passages were played by various of combinations of instruments, but always keeping the joyful spirit in mind. A slow gentle richly decorated Sarabande was played as a violin solo with string accompaniment, which was followed by a quirky fast variation. The fifteenth variation, played by the winds, was a slow melancholy passage, a stark contrast to the previous one. Then all the musicians disappeared into the shadows at the back of the stage and harpist Carolyn Mills played a magical repetition of the the opening theme.

During a brief break Stephen de Pledge talked about the instrument he was playing, the fortepiano, and its development.

After the break the reiteration of the theme was followed by a grand French Overture played by winds and a selection of strings. In contrast, the next variation, a canon, was played on the fortepiano alone. Then all the strings came back and played a delightful dance-like variation. Following that, the next variation was played on fortepiano alone, giving Stephen de Pledge a chance to demonstrate the subtleties possible on the newly developed keyboard instrument. Then a sombre canon was played by winds and strings. A fugal passage by the whole ensemble was followed by a virtuosic variation on the fortepiano. A light-hearted canon for bassoon, clarinet and violin led to a beautiful dark Adagio, the emotional high point of the piece. This was contrasted by a virtuoso toccata on the fortepiano. Then came a bright interplay among the strings and a jolly resolution of what went on in the previous variations, played with gusto by the whole ensemble. Finally we arrived at the concluding piece, the Quodlibet, based on popular songs, probably sung by Bach and his brothers when they got together. To conclude the work the opening Aria returned with an emotionally charged rendition by violins and then the keyboard alone.

Throughout the performance the various musicians walked on and off the stage like ghosts, as they were needed. The MFC stage provided a theatrical setting with subtle blue lighting in the background setting the mood. At the end of the performance all the musicians retreated into the dark, leaving the fortepiano playing on his own, the lights were dimmed and the audience was left to reflect on a journey that was not a mere musical experience but a journey of life with its full gamut of emotions.

Performing this vast work in the large space of the Michael Fowler Centre presented problems. At times the strings, particularly the violins were overshadowed by the more penetrating sound of the winds, but this is a mere quibble. We should be grateful to the musicians, mostly principals of the NZSO, for their meticulous, inspired playing and particular to Vesa-Matti Leppȁnen for putting it all together from different sources.

To record the concert on, available on YouTube, so that people could enjoy it in their living rooms from Kaitaia to the Bluff, is a wonderful initiative of the NZSO. It is exactly what a publicly funded organization like the NZSO should do.

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