Official Release: 16 July 2021
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen, commonly known as the “Goldberg Variations”, is one of the best-known compositions of this master of masters. This fame is well deserved, for a number of reasons – some of which are not strictly musical.
From the musical point of view, few works in music history can compete with the “Goldberg Variations” under many aspects. The first element one notices is the works’ length, which, of course, does not immediately imply quality: however, a single keyboard work with a unified concept and lasting well beyond one hour is rather uncommon, and was really exceptional at Bach’s time. Still more exceptional is that the whole cycle consists of variations on a single theme, or, more precisely, on a single bass line: different from other variations cycles, in fact, here the source of the variations is not found in the soprano part (the “tune”), but rather in the harmony-generating bass. But one element which is practically unique for the “Goldberg Variations” is their extraordinary architectural structure. Every third Variation is a canon, i.e. the strictest form of imitation codified by the polyphonic rules. And these canons follow a precise order: the first canon, i.e. Variation Three, is a canon at the unison, meaning that the two parts imitating each other perform the very same notes at a fixed interval of time. But the second canon, corresponding to Variation Six, is a canon at the second: the delay in time which constitutes the canon’s essence is matched here by a difference in pitch, as the two canonic voices begin their melody on two different notes, separated by a distance of a tone (i.e. a second, in musical terms). Thus the scheme continues: the canonic variations’ numbering corresponds to the interval at which the canon is proposed (so that the third canon is a canon at the third and so on). The two central canons, i.e. those at the fourth and at the fifth respectively, are even more complicated. Not only do they respect the time delay and the prescribed intervallic difference, but they also display a further artifice, i.e. the so called “inversion”: if the first part has an ascending tune, it will be mirrored as a descending line by the imitating part. In all cases, moreover, the two parts moving in imitation will intertwine with the bass line, grounded on the originating matrix of the Variations.
Needless to say, all of these artifices display an extreme compositional complexity. Bach was no newcomer in the field, to be sure; arguably, he enjoyed the intellectual, rational and logical challenge of creating themes capable of combining with each other in such a complex and almost supernatural fashion. What leaves the scholar dumbfounded, however, is that these artifices never sound artificial. The “Goldberg Variations” and their canons flow marvelously, enthralling the listener with their elegance, expressivity and eloquence, and never sound dry, convoluted or self-complacent.
An element of variety is also found in the variations which are not canons, and which alternate “character pieces” (such as pastorales, Fughettas, or dances) with virtuoso pieces, frequently involving hand-crossings on the keyboard. They turn the cycle into a true palette of possibilities, representing the full gamut of Baroque keyboard music and frequently transcending its boundaries.
The cycle is broken into two halves by a French Overture, which refreshes the ear and constitutes a new beginning (it also builds an ideal bridge with other French Overtures placed by Bach at analogous points of the other keyboard works constituting the Clavierübung, the collection of his keyboard works printed during his lifetime). The series closes with a Quodlibet, another extraordinary contrapuntal composition in which a number of themes, motifs and fragments are ingeniously combined with each other in an almost impossible fashion. It has been often repeated that this Quodlibet is made of tavern songs: this is imprecise at best, and erroneous at worst, since in fact most of the identified motifs have a very different origin. One of the most evident among them, actually, is a church Chorale with a text roughly translated as “What God does, is well done”.
By choosing to crown his masterpiece of a cycle with this Chorale, Bach affirms a great truth: the achievements of human creators are praiseworthy and should be pursued through struggles and labour, but the only true Creator is God himself.
After the Quodlibet, another extraordinary stroke of genius is Bach’s choice to present the Air, i.e. the original theme, one more time in its purity and simplicity. The theme was exceedingly beautiful at first hearing; but, at the end of the cycle, when it has revealed its full hidden potential and has given birth to thirty variations, it sounds simply otherworldly.
At this point, the attentive reader will have noticed that “Quodlibet” is the name of the last variation of the cycle, but also of the ensemble performing here. And, of course, no keyboard is present in this Da Vinci Classics album, except as a memory and as a suggestion. It is not by chance, naturally, that Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, including the Quodlibet, are played by the Trio Quodlibet. This young string ensemble, founded when its members were still students at the master courses in Lugano, owes its name precisely to the final Variation of Bach’s cycle. This choice reveals two important truths about them: the first is that the intention of performing the “Goldberg Variations” was one of the motivations for their creation of the ensemble; the second is that they wished to pay homage to the plurality, multiplicity and harmonious combination of the themes found in this masterpiece of the contrapuntal writing.
Indeed, the cellist of this Trio had always wished to perform Bach’s masterpiece, and his invitation to the violinist and violist to join him in a chamber ensemble focused primarily on the possibility of playing a transcription of the “Goldberg Variations” with them. Of course, this felicitous invitation led the musicians to establish a true ensemble, whose repertoire extends well beyond the “Goldberg Variations” and whose cooperation and friendship lasts since many years. Notwithstanding this, the “Goldberg Variations” have become a signature piece for its members, and have contributed to establishing their – by now – international fame. The choice of playing such an iconic work of the keyboard repertoire on string instruments may seem odd at first; the game of hand-crossings, and the utter virtuosity of many passages seem to be bound to the structure of the original instrument. This is not perforce the case, however; indeed, the “Goldberg Variations” are also played by many pianists, who commonly perform them on the single keyboard of their instrument, whose technical features and whose timbre differ radically from those of the harpsichord for which the Variations were originally composed.
Many other transcriptions of this great cycle exist, moreover, for a variety of instruments and ensembles. There are also several different versions for the same ensemble, the string trio, and the one recorded here is one of the most appreciated. It was realized by Bruno Giuranna, a legendary Italian violist and pedagogue who carefully studied the original and who successfully attempted to respect the original scoring as closely as possible. This does not make for easy playing on the string instruments, to be sure; but the result is doubtlessly fascinating. It also testifies to the interest of Italian musicians for the “Goldberg Variations”: among Bach’s works, this is the one most frequently recorded by Italian performers (although, of course, not in this version).
The members of the Trio Quodlibet have studied this work with the transcriber himself, as well as with other concert musicians and teachers; they have decided not to imitate the timbre, idiosyncrasies and articulation of the harpsichord on their instruments, but rather to exploit the full timbral potential of the strings they play. The result is no reconstruction of Baroque sonorities, but also not a betrayal of Bach’s style: the members of the Trio have sought, and found, a difficult but fascinating balance between the modernity of their approach and a deep respect for the style of the original work.
Their performance, therefore, allows the listeners to discover new gems in the deep and dense texture of one of the best-known pieces of the keyboard literature of all times. The wonder of this music is that, after so many performances and recordings, it still has much to reveal; and the sound of the Trio Quodlibet, their intelligent performance and their sensitive interpretation certainly contribute to the revelation of these hidden treasures, and to the enjoyment of this colossal and extraordinary masterpiece.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Trio Quodlibet: Trio Quodlibet, despite being a young string formation, can enumerate concerts and collaborations with high level series and music festivals nationally and internationally: the “Concerti del Quirinale” in Rome (broadcast live on RaiRadio3 and Rai Quirinale), Unione Musicale di Torino, Società dei Concerti di Trieste, Società del Quartetto di Milano, Società del Quartetto di Vicenza, Amici della Musica di Firenze, Musica Insieme Bologna, Ravenna Festival, Museo del Violino in Cremona, Festival MITO, and tours in South Korea and the south of France, are only a few examples.
The Accademia W. Stauffer of Cremona in the class of Quartetto di Cremona, Accademia Chigiana of Siena under the tutelage of Bruno Giuranna, Jeunesses Musicales Deutschland International Chamber Music Campus of Weikersheim with Heime Muller, Cuarteto Casals, and Belcea Quartet among others, in addition to masterclasses with the Gewandhaus Quartet, Fine Arts Quartet, Dirk Mommertz, and Hariolf Schlichtig, were solid realities that enhanced and developed the artistic qualities of Trio Quodlibet—qualities that permitted the three musicians to stand out also in important international competitions: in 2016 they were awarded the “Tina Anguissola Scotti” 2nd Prize at Valtidone International Chamber Music Competition and the 1st Prize at “European Music Competition” of Moncalieri; and in 2018 they won 2nd Prize at the Massimiliano Antonelli International Chamber Music Competition of Latina.
During the course of 2019, RAIRadio3’s “La Stanza della Musica” aired Trio Quodlibet’s live performances of the complete trios of Beethoven over five episodes. In 2020, Trio Quodlibet released their first CD containing two of these trios, ‘Il Re Maggiore,’ under SMC Records.
For their musical qualities they were the first string trio selected to join “Le Dimore del Quartetto”.
In 2017 they received the “Lili Comparini” scholarship courtesy of Dottor Carlo Comparini and in 2019 they were awarded a scholarship by Rotary Club of Cremona.
Johann Sebastian Bach: (b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750). Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.
The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach Revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach’s works were underway; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.