Saturday, May 5, 2012

PHOENIX performs Labadie's arrangement of J.S.Bach's Goldberg Variations

Maestro Bernard Labadie

Bernard Labadie (b.1963, Québec, Canada) is a prominent conductor of Baroque and Classical repertoire; he is also an opera specialist. He founded and continues to direct “Les Violons du Roy” and the choir “La Chapelle de Québec”. In 1997, he began his transcription of J.S.Bach’s Goldberg Variations (composed 1741 or 1742) for string orchestra and continuo. (Russian violinist and conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky had made a note-for-note transcription of the work for string orchestra prior to Labadie’s). Speaking of his first major arrangement in an interview with Wah Keung Chan, Labadie mentioned the fact that Bach himself did much recycling of his own music. Labadie’s aim was to transcribe the Goldberg Variations in the manner that might be chosen by an 18th century composer. Because of new possibilities offered by different instrumentation, Labadie sees a transcription as a new opus “which should not be compared to the original”. (This is easier said than done!) He referred to the project as “a dangerous and stimulating process”. There is a recording of Labadie’s version played by “Les Violons du Roy” on modern stringed instruments but with period bows. Founder and director of the PHOENIX Ensemble, Dr. Myrna Herzog, always eager to stretch the limits of conventional concert repertoire, contacted Bernard Labadie with a request to perform his still unpublished arrangement, to which he agreed. PHOENIX’ first performance of it took place May 2nd 2012 at Christ Church in Jerusalem’s Old City. Performers were harpsichordist Marina Minkin, violinists Yasuko Hirata and Noam Schuss, violist Daniel Tanchelson and Myrna Herzog herself on viola da gamba, all instrumentalists flying high on the Israeli Baroque music scene and further afield.

To start off in familiar territory, Minkin played the first part of the Aria on the harpsichord, the ensemble joining in on the repeat; likewise with the second part. The following variations were then performed in various combinations from one instrument to five. We were now hearing the Goldberg Variations as chamber music, complete with first violin – Yasuko Hirata in the first half of the work, Noam Schuss in the second. The expressive intensity of strings made for a rich, mellifluous, cantabile sound, with techniques such as pizzicato adding charm and lightness, as in Variations 4 and 28. With the contrapuntal texture allotting individual voices to instruments, Marina Minkin divided her time between reinforcing the harmonic aspect of the piece and playing complete lines, often doubled by Herzog. PHOENIX’ instrumental combination offered opportunities for many solos, the violins winning the lion’s share of them. Violist Tanchelson’s sensitive playing offered listeners a rare chance to hear articulate nuances of inner voices of the contrapuntal texture. Hirata’s reading of Bach is intelligent and directional, confident and unmannered. Noam Schuss gave an impressive, forthright and expressive performance of the upper voice of Variation 25, one of the minor variations. Myrna Herzog’s role of the bass viol complemented both harpsichord and string ensemble, her playing indicative of her emotional involvement in the project.

Duets between stringed instruments, in total keeping with the text, provided much delight, stating the case for fine 2-voiced interaction, also reminding the listener of the intimate character of Bach’s Goldberg Variations: Hirata and Tanchelson in Variation no.11, Schuss and Tanchelson in Variation 17, Hirata and Schuss in Variation no.23 and Schuss and Herzog “keeping their distance” in Variation 27.

The demands of Labadie’s writing for a larger ensemble could not be adapted to the PHOENIX quintet, hence Minkin’s solo playing of some of the movements: the jolly gigue represented in Variation 7, Variation no. 14 in all its devilish complexities, its hand-crossing and characteristic “flutters” and the elusive hide-and-seek of the temperamental no.20. Marina Minkin’s playing of the above movements on a single-manual harpsichord by Klop (Bach composed his GV for a two-manual harpsichord) was high-octane, fresh and exhilarating, leading me to think that perhaps those unique variations were better left untouched by the arranger’s hands.

Once again, Myrna Herzog has challenged audiences to free themselves of pre-conceptions, to listen with “new ears”. What effect do the Goldberg Variations have as chamber music? Do the rich textures, kinder dissonances and dulcet legato melodies relay the work’s message? Or does the work have any specific message? (Bach writes nothing on the subject, only that the Clavierübung- Keyboard Practice – the collection, in which the GV appears, was aimed at “music-lovers” rather than students). Do we need varied scoring to bring out contrasts between movements? I felt the intermission at the Jerusalem concert was detrimental to the work's process; Herzog decided to play straight through in consequent performances. When asked whose music we would be hearing, Labadie answered “Audiences will hear mostly Bach and a little Labadie…I think risk should be part of a musician’s life…” Myrna Herzog would surely agree with him. What was certain at the concert at Christ Church was that we had heard some very fine playing based on deep enquiry into this beautiful work….and it was, indeed, Bach. if somewhat diluted. What was missing for me was the stark reality of that harpsichord timbre and the technical- and emotional “struggle” on the part of the sole harpsichordist attempting the near insurmountable.

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