Friday, 30 April 2021

Bach's Goldberg Variations in a winning new arrangement for violin, guitar and cello

JS Bach, arr. David Juritz Goldberg Variations; David Juritz, Craig Ogden, Tim Hugh; Nimbus

JS Bach, arr. David Juritz Goldberg Variations; David Juritz, Craig Ogden, Tim Hugh; Nimbus Alliance

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 April 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A new arrangement of Bach's keyboard masterpiece which deftly combines old and new in wonderfully winning performances

Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations, or to give the work its original title Clavier Ubung bestehend in einer Aria mit verschiedenen Verænderungen vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen (Keyboard exercise, consisting of an Aria with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals) was published in 1741 and can be seen to represent the beginning of Bach's final decade with its series of summation works, including the Musical Offering, the Art of Fugue and the Mass in B minor. It is in a form which other composers were using, a short theme and then a series of variations, and both Buxtehude and Handel had published such compendia, but Bach's music takes the genre to the ultimate.

Unusually it was published, the fourth of Bach's Klavierübung (previous printed volumes had included the six keyboard partitas and the Italian Concerto). Unlike works such as the Art of Fugue, we have a clear idea of the forces for which it was written; Bach's preface clearly states that is is for harpsichord and specifically for two manual harpsichord. And there is a strong suggestion of a performance tradition (unlike the Art of Fugue and the Mass in B minor) with the premiere probably being given by the virtuoso harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg for whom the variations are named nowadays. But being written for a two-manual harpsichord (and Bach specifies which variations should use two manuals) means that modern performers playing it on a single manual harpsichord or on the piano are introducing an element of transcription. Perhaps because of this, or because of the sheer virtuosity in the way Bach changes the textures of the music from variation to variation, the work has always attracted adaptations. On a new disc from Nimbus Alliance, violinist David Juritz has arranged Bach's Goldberg Variations for the intriguing combination of violin (David Juritz), guitar (Craig Ogden) and cello (Tim Hugh), and the arrangement is also being published by Nimbus Music Publishing.

In a note in the booklet, David Juritz explains that the arrangement came about partly because he told a concert promoter that he was doing it and 'the prospect of withdrawing was too embarrassing to contemplate, so I persevered.' Juritz has used forces which Bach would have recognised, violin, cello and continuo instrument. The 18th century took a far more flexible view of music than do we, so Bach would probably have not been surprised to find his work transferred to a group like this. Of course, Jurtiz's contemporary twist is that the continuo instrument is a modern classical guitar and his writing for it requires rather more deft polyphonic playing from Craig Ogden than a Baroque composer might have done. In fact, in his booklet note Juritz describes Ogden as 'a virtuoso guitarist whose technical accomplishment is matched only by his Aussie ability to remain unruffled in the face of any challenge'.

Title page of the Goldberg Variations (first edition, 1741)
Title page of the Goldberg Variations (first edition, 1741)
Another aspect of the original work which is fascinating is its numerology. Most people can divine something about Bach's careful use of numbers in the work, every third variation is a canon, the resulting groups of three always include a Baroque dance and so on. But it goes much further, few people probably notice, for instance, that Variation 1 begins with a 41-note flurry in the right hand underpinned by a seven-note figure repeated four times (4 x 7 = 2 x 14 [BACH] = 28 [second perfect number]). And there is a lot more. What is miraculous is not Bach's use of numerology, but the way he could do it so deftly that the listener is essentially unware of the complexities.

We should remove from our minds the idea of Bach as the isolated genius working away in Leipzig, he was clearly in touch with the musical world and during the 1740s he copied, transcribed and adapted music by composers as varied as Palestrina, Gasparini, Caldara and Pergolesi. So he was familiar with the way these composers (some earlier, some younger than Bach), writing in the stile antico, could make complexity of construction into something effortless. But there is humour too, the final variation is a Quodlibet which involves two popular songs, Ich bin so lang nicht bey dir g'west (It’s been so long since I’ve been together with you) and Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben (Cabbages and beets have driven me away). The second is also the theme of a great set of variations by Bach's mentor Buxtehude, but pianist Jeremy Denk has suggested that it also might be a sly dig at Handel (who has published his own Chaconne and variations in the 1730s).

The first thing that struck me about this adaptation and performance was the lightness and charm that the three performers bring to the music. This is not dour academic Bach; despite the rigour of the construction (and Juritz takes few major liberties) the textures are light and the learning is worn lightly. Ogden's performance might, indeed, be a virtuoso one but it doesn't have 'look at me, aren't I clever' written all over it, instead it is deftly engaging and fully part of the chamber music reinvention of the work. Different movements use different combinations of instruments, and Juritz is imaginative in his varying of the textures so that, for instance, the cello is never simply reduced to reinforcing the bass line but contributes in a variety of ways, including some high writing where effectively Hugh duets with Juritz.

I have to confess that when I first came across this disc I was a bit dubious, what was the need to arrange Goldberg Variations at all but the performance won me over. I find it so engaging and engaged, with a genuine sense of chamber music interaction and a winning feeling of humour alongside the deft and stylish performances. There is something intriugingly cross-generational in the sound world, a nod to the Baroque trio sonata combined with the very modern sound of the classical guitar.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1759), arr. David Juritz - Goldberg Variations
David Juritz (violin)
Craig Ogden (guitar)
Tim Hugh (cello)
Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, August 2020
NIMBUS NI6414 1CD [79.40]


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