Tuesday 5 December 2023

The Goldberg Variations Reimagined: Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque at Kings Place

The Goldberg Variations Reimagined: Rachel Podger, Brecon Baroque; Kings Place
The Goldberg Variations Reimagined: Rachel Podger, Brecon Baroque; Kings Place
Bach/Chad Kelly: The Goldberg Variations Reimagined: Rachel Podger, Brecon Baroque; Kings Place
Reviewed 3 December 2023

A new orchestration of Bach for nine instruments brings out a sense of colour and style in a series of vivid reinventions, superbly played

Bach was an inveterate re-worker and re-user of material, most Baroque composers were. After all, the potential audience for any piece of music was usually relatively small, unless you were one of the lucky few with a wide published circulation, so composers could reuse without constantly worrying in the way modern composers might. 

And when Bach reused he could be quite creative in his reworking. After all, the Christmas Oratorio, which we heard on Saturday from Masaaki Suzuki and the OAE [see my review] is almost entirely based on pre-existing material.

So what might Bach have done to the Goldberg Variations? This thought kept popping into my head as I listened to The Goldberg Variations Reimagined, Chad Kelly's new version of Bach's Goldberg Variations created for violinist Rachel Podger and performed (in its London premiere) by her and Brecon Baroque at Kings Place on Sunday 3 December 2023.

Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations specifically for harpsichord, though it is common practice to perform it on the piano as well and there have been any number of transcriptions including that by Dmitry Sitkovetsky for string trio. Chad Kelly's avowed intention with his version was to ensure that the arrangement was idiomatic both to the historical instruments and to the styles and genres referenced in the work. What Kelly was trying to avoid was the sort of tricksy orchestration that remained true to Bach's keyboard notes, producing something stylistically anachronistic.

So we had an instrumental ensemble of Rachel Podger and Sabine Stoffer, violins, Jane Rogers, viola, Alex Rolton, cello and five-string cello, Carina Cosgrave, violone, Leo Durante, oboe and oboe da caccia, Katy Bircher, flute, Inga Kaucke, bassoon, and Marcin Swiatkiewicz, harpsichord. 

The orchestration varied from variation to variation, each one considered on its own merits. One feature of Kelly's approach was the the canons which dot the work had the canonic lines written for contrasting timbres of instrument, which was a nice and rather effective touch.

Things began with just Podger and Swiatkiewicz, creating music that felt free and natural, as if Bach had always intended it to be like that, and when the cello joined for the first variation, it felt like a natural progression. Throughout the performance there was an engaging sense of communal music making, the players bringing out the joy of playing together rather than taking part in an academic exercise.

As the instrumental colours changed, from violin oboe, bassoon and harpsichord to flute, violin and cello for instance, we enjoyed the timbral variation. Kelly's approach came over as very idiomatic and stylistically apposite in each movement, though I did wonder whether the kaleidoscopic approach also felt a bit modern, and wondered what Bach might have done!

The first tutti, in Variation Four, created a very vivid moment, and was followed by a variation featuring some dazzling violin playing. The Al tempo di Giga was delightfully characterful with flute, bassoon and harpsichord, whilst in some movements adding the double bass into the continuo mix gave the bass line a remarkable amount of welly, that again felt a bit modern. The vivid tutti for the Fughetta in Variation Ten was followed by the striking austerity of violin and flute alone. Variation Fourteen again gave us some spectacular violin playing, this time from the two violins and continuo whilst the first half ended with the splendid austerity of the Canone all Quinta, the oboe da caccia's mellow duet with the flute.

The second half opened with the wonderfully grand French overture of Variation Sixteen, featuring all the instruments. At times the sheer modernity of Bach's writing was astonishing, whether it was the quasi-minimalism of two violins and viola in canon or in Variation Twenty Three the strong bass constantly interrupting the violins. Variation Twenty Five featured a fabulously expressive solo from Podger, whilst Variation Twenty Seven had her and the cello in an austere canon without supporting continuo. Finally, in the penultimate variation harpsichordist Marcin Swiatkiewicz got his solo moment in a vividly bravura movement, followed by the everything-at-once approach to the whole ensemble in the Quodlibet, and then the repeat of the aria, only not quite a repeat as here we used the full ensemble.

The Goldberg Variations Reimagined: Rachel Podger, Brecon Baroque; Kings Place
The Goldberg Variations Reimagined: Rachel Podger, Brecon Baroque; Kings Place

Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque's recording of The Goldberg Variations Reimagined is on Channel Classics

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Elsewhere on this blog

  • Bach's Christmas Oratorio from Masaaki Suzuki and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - concert review
  • Organ Re-born! a mini-concert series mounted in celebration of the return and rebirth of Norwich Cathedral’s organ - concert review
  • The Hidden Light: composer Joanna Marsh on her triptych of pieces for the choir of St John's College, Cambridge - interview
  • Early Beethoven & Verdi's only string quartet in London's oldest surviving Livery Hall - concert review
  • A distinctive voice & a richly rewarding sound-world: songs by Franco Alfano from Anna Pirozzi & Emma Abbate -record review
  • Handel by candle-light & a gig on Jimi Hendrix's bed: Handel Hendrix After Dark - concert review
  • Captivating & fascinating: Goldberg from Syriab Trio and Trio d'Iroise, bringing together Western classical, Arabic music and Bach - record review
  • A remarkable sense of energy & engagement: Wagner's Die Walküre from the London Opera Company at St John's Smith Square - opera review
  • Dependent ArisingAmerican violinist Rachel Barton Pine on combining classical and Heavy Metal on her latest concerto album -interview
  • Magical textures & supple lines: Fauré's La bonne chanson, Ravel & Canteloube from Louise Alder & eleven friends at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Taking its energy from the youth of the performers: Olivia Fuchs' new production of Handel's Ariodante at Royal Academy Opera - opera review
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