Variations on 'Goldberg' falls between stools
The Irish Baroque Orchestra’s performance of Sitkovetsky’s arrangement of Bach’s work for string orchestra lacked the weight of an orchestra or the clarity of a solo instrument, writes MICHAEL DERVAN
REMEMBER CONDUCTOR Mantovani and his cascading strings effect? At its most intense the Mantovani Orchestra’s trademark sounded almost like a continuous echo, a smearing of the melodic line so thorough that new notes were always beginning before the previous ones had ended.
As musical tricks go it was quite a neat one. It took a fundamental reality of orchestral life, the fact that even impeccable-sounding orchestras are never quite together, pushed it in the most unexpected of directions – making things sound less rather than more uniform and unanimous – and did so to the point at which the blurring of sound stopped being a defect and simply had to be heard as a special effect.
You could say that it’s the fact that orchestras don’t play perfectly together that makes them sound like orchestras. The refinement of the best comes from the fact that their range of divergence is so small. And it was Mantovani’s gift to have grasped how you could take advantage of the situation if you just turned it on its head.
The Mantovani sound was an exploitation of massed orchestral violin tone. But you’ll find many a minor exploitation of the slightly soured sound of just a pair of not quite unanimous instruments in the works of the great masters. There’s a passage of this kind for two clarinets in unison in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Eroica, where micro-discrepancies in intonation make an expressive effect that absolute perfection would wipe put.
There are a number of orchestral works from the mid-19th century where, instead of giving the orchestra leader a violin solo, the passage is written for the leader and his or her companion at the first desk, again creating a special, expressive moment.
And there’s the case of Richard Strauss, who, late in life, complained when a string section played exactly what he put in his score. Orchestral standards had risen in the decades since he’d written the piece, and, at the time of composition, he simply didn’t expect such difficult writing to be delivered with such unanimity.
His only choice was to insist on it being played in a way that was a little rough about the edges.
The difference between the rules of engagement for orchestral and chamber music is never clearer than when orchestras turn their hands to arrangements of string quartets. Mahler, Weingartner, Furtwängler, Toscanini, Mitropoulos and Bernstein were among the conductors who presented string quartets – including late Beethoven – in orchestral guise, and the practice experienced a mini-vogue in the 1980s.
These orchestral versions can be a thing of wonder in the right hands. But with lesser mortals the music often comes to sound straitjacketed, massiveness of sound being no real substitute for the adaptability of a quartet of experienced chamber musicians.
It was in the 1980s, too, as an homage to Glenn Gould, that the violinist and conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky, a former principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra, arranged Bach’s Goldberg Variations for string trio.
Sitkovetsky took his inspiration not from Gould’s famous 1955 recording of the work but the later 1981 version, and even incorporated Gould’s style of ornamentation into his arrangement. Sitkovetsky also later produced an arrangement for string orchestra, which the Irish Baroque Orchestra and its artistic director, Monica Huggett, took on a short tour last week.