Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations Reimagined
Goldberg Variations, BWV988 (arr. for chamber orchestra by Chad Kelly, 2020)
Brecon Baroque/Rachel Podger (violin)
rec. 2022, St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London, UK
Channel Classics CCSSA44923 SACD [81]

Bach’s work of towering genius seems to be infinitely adaptable to all manner of instruments and combinations. Scanning our index of reviews of the Goldbergs, I can see versions for wind quintet, string trio, accordion, guitar, harp, organ, an ensemble of nine bassoons and several for orchestra. There is also a famous version for jazz trio by the Jacques Loussier Trio. This is the fourth for orchestra I have in my collection, and I’m sure there will be some of you reading this who have several more. Two of those are the Sitkovetsky arrangement for strings, and while the other (by the Polish composer Józef Koffler) does include wind instruments, it has a 19th-century feel to it. This new arrangement (or reimagining as it is called) includes winds and harpsichord as well, and has a strong Baroque sensibility. Chad Kelly is a British harpsichordist and conductor, now residing in Australia, whom Rachel Podger commissioned to prepare this arrangement. He plays harpsichord (one with a glorious sound, I must say) on the recording.

A notable difference in this arrangement is that Kelly has “merged” some of the variations into single movements. By merged, I mean that there is no pause, and I should make it clear that the order has not been changed. For example, the last Variation (No. 29), the Quodlibet and the Aria da capo, comprise the final seven-minute movement, and the “Black Pearl” Variation (No. 25) is followed immediately by Variation 26. In the latter case, Variation 26 on other versions (keyboard or otherwise) tends to be played quickly, but here the tempo is much more stately, though not quite as slow as Variation 25. Perhaps the thinking is that the sudden change would have been too jarring. However, in the previous movement, Variation 23 is given a dazzling strings-only virtuoso arrangement, followed immediately by a gentle flute-dominated Variation 24.

While it is not mentioned anywhere in the booklet notes, the Brandenburg concertos clearly were a major influence on Kelly’s work. Most, if not all, movements have a substantial solo part, most notably for violin, played beautifully by Rachel Podger. Indeed, it is as though we have now a seventh, very long Brandenburg concerto, underpinned by the wonderful Goldberg melodies. Of the arrangements for ensemble I have heard, this is definitely the most “authentic” in terms of sounding as though JS could have written it. It is also the most consistently enjoyable by some margin.

The whole work is given greater variety by the scoring of movements for different combinations of the nine instruments in the ensemble, beginning with the Aria, for violin and harpsichord only. Variation 1 is for strings only, and the winds enter in the Variations 2-5 movement.

Some highlights among the many? Without doubt, the final movement: it is utterly glorious, with a big solo part for the harpsichord in Variation 29, and the entry into the Quodlibet with the low strings leading the way for the full ensemble raises the hairs on the back of your neck. It is easily the most uplifting music I have heard all year. Perhaps less obvious is the movement comprising Variations 6-8, with dazzling strings in the outer sections contrasting with the trio for flute, bassoon and harpsichord providing a pastoral element in Variation 7.

I felt the booklet notes, contributed by Kelly, are something of a wasted opportunity. The three pages are used to set out the context in which Bach composed the work, and provide some generalised thoughts about the arrangement. It certainly would have been helpful to listeners, most of whom would be well-versed in the history of the work, for Kelly to have elaborated on the specifics, especially to know his thinking behind combining some variations and not others. The sound is very upfront and vivid, but unfortunately that has meant quite a lot of “extraneous” noise – key clicks and especially intakes of breath – which can become somewhat distracting.

The performances are simply wonderful. Rachel Podger’s ensemble of brilliant players has consistently drawn high praise, and this is my first opportunity to add mine. If you are usually averse to one-to-a-part strings, have no fear: Brecon Baroque generates a remarkable breadth and depth of sound when required.

Some of you may have read my recent review of Víkingur Ólafsson’s Goldbergs, which expressed both my anticipation and disappointment. I came to this Brecon Baroque recording with no particular expectations, and found it initially a very enjoyable experience, and after a few listens, a quite stunning one (and a late entry for my Recordings of the Year).

David Barker

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