Thursday, December 31, 2020

Ensemble PHOENIX performs Labadie's transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations at the 2020 Desert Sounds Festival

Noam Schuss,Noam Gal,Marina Minkin,Rachel Ringelstein,Myrna Herzog (Dror Heller)


“J.S.Bach’s Goldberg Variations - Beyond the Harpsichord”, an event of the Desert Sounds Festival and of the Felicja Blumental Music Center, was performed by Ensemble PHOENIX on December 24th 2020 and relayed to audiences on live streaming. Performing Bernard Labadie’s transcription of the work were violinists Noam Schuss and Noam Gal, Rachel Ringelstein-viola, Marina Minkin-harpsichord and PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog-viola da gamba.


In 1741, J.S.Bach published the fourth and final volume of his Clavier-Übung, this consisting “of an Aria with diverse variations for the harpsichord with two manuals”. As in the previous three volumes of the series, the composer added that the work was “prepared for the soul’s delight of lovers of music.”  The Goldberg Variations represent the final stage of Bach’s rigorous and systematic exploration of writing for the keyboard that began with the Two- and Three-Part Inventions and the Well-Tempered Clavier and end with the four volumes of the Clavier-Übung. The Goldberg Variations are among the most technically demanding works for the harpsichord. Bach avails himself of the many resources of the instrument, including a number of variations requiring complex hand crossings, the latter technique unique in Bach’s keyboard writing.. He wrote the variations for a double-manual harpsichord, specifying which variations were to be played across the two keyboards (in some cases to facilitate hand crossings, in others, to colour specific variations differently.) The aria which precedes the variations and closes the variations is actually a Sarabande written over a bass line of 32 bars, the latter form and its implied harmonies (and not the Sarabande melody) forming the material on which Bach builds the variations. The composer’s fascination with numbers can be observed in his division of the variations into groups of three, each group culminating in a canon; the canons start at the unison and progress stepwise to a canon at the ninth. So, it could be said that the Goldberg Variations are, in many ways, the perfect balance between art and science. As much as can be said about the stringent technical challenges facing the performer, any virtuosity and mastery Bach demands of the player pales in comparison with the virtuosity and mastery he presents here as a composer. If one considers Bach’s own practice of reusing pre-written movements for later repertoire, it stands to reason that. a work of such universality is apt to fare effectively in different instrumental settings



Enter prominent Baroque and Classical conductor and opera specialist Bernard Labadie (b.1963, Québec, Canada). In 1997, he began his transcription of J.S.Bach’s Goldberg Variations for string orchestra and continuo. (Russian violinist and conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky made a note-for-note transcription of the work for string orchestra prior to Labadie’s setting). 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 his transcription as a new opus “which should not be compared to the original”, (easier said than done!), referring to the project as “a dangerous and stimulating process”. 


Ensemble PHOENIX pays respect to Bach, deciding to have the first section of the Aria played by the harpsichord alone (Minkin), however, bringing in bowed instruments on the repeat. Then, as one follows the PHOENIX performance with the original score, one sees how natural it was for Labadie to determine the instrumental settings for each variation. The work is no longer a keyboard solo, with the artist in communication with himself. Not lost, however, is the work’s intimacy, now created by close communication between the players, here, playing one to a part on period instruments, now engaging in the intimate chamber music genre. We are presented with string trios, as in Variation 9, with its occasional unorthodox harmonies, Schuss’ playing shining in fine shaping and expressiveness, or Variation 25 (Schuss, Ringelstein, Herzog) in the minor mode, its soul-searching, daring narrative wrought of large, unconventional leaps and dissonances, leaving the listener somewhat disquieted but deeply moved. There are quartets, there are tutti and there are duets, the power of Bach’s consummate two-voiced writing inviting thrilling teamwork and splendid delivery, as in Variation 11 (Schuss, Ringelstein) or in Variation 17, with the same two artists decoding Bach’s intense volley of notes with clear phrasing,  flexing and rubato, indeed, giving the movement their own personal stamp; and  Bach’s humour is present, as in the jocund hide-and-seek of Variation 20 (Gal, Ringelstein) representing the nimble and formidable hand-crossing acrobatics Bach demands of the keyboard player. As opposed to many artists who toss off Variation 27 in a blurred whirl of accelerated bravado, Schuss and Herzog, taking their cue from Labadie's tempo marking, pace their playing to outline Bach’s plan of action as inherent in the piece's playful dialogue. Labadie’s setting offers  much timbral variety. In Variation 7, however, PHOENIX chooses to have harpsichord and strings alternate, whereas Labadie's setting calls for only strings. The Goldberg Variations comprise uplifting tutti sections and solos, these and the above to be handled only by virtuoso players. The PHOENIX musicians gave expression to moments of Baroque courtly eloquence. PHOENIX also addresses Bach’s most original timbral inferences. In Variation 29, with the strings engaging in triumphant, homophonic, fanfare-type utterances, the PHOENIX players add the contrasting element of the  harpsichord part (Minkin) alternating the brassy chord texturess with its own agenda, indeed, playing totally different- and typically keyboard textures. If the Quodlibet, in its simple folk-like format, brings us back down to earth, it is the original Sarabande, now differently scored, with Schuss presenting the wistful melody throughout, completing the rich, meaningful musical experience that was offered online by Ensemble PHOENIX. And it was also a rich visual experience, with attentive camerawork inviting us to view the players’ every gesture and facial expression (unfortunately, we saw less of Marina Minkin, who was seated behind the string players) giving the audience the privilege of being involved in the musical process unfolding throughout the work... certainly a more visible experience than for people seated in a concert hall.  

A slightly different team of Ensemble PHOENIX players performed Labadie’s Goldberg Variations transcription in 2012. Always a “work in progress”, Dr. Myrna Herzog’s aspiration to revisit the Goldberg Variations is commensurate with the desire of many harpsichordists who perform and re-examine the mammoth work more than once throughout their professional lives. The PHOENIX players’ intelligent, virtuosic, profoundly inquiring, sensitive and nuanced performance confirms that the greatness of the Goldbergs goes far beyond the keyboard, opening the floodgates for new interpretative possibilities of this ingenious work, all wrought of the same harpsichord score.

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