Variations on 'Goldberg' falls between stools

Tue, Sep 18, 2012, 01:00

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.

Sitkovetsky’s Goldbergs for string trio are a minor miracle of musical imagination. They are, you might say, Bach, but not as we have known him. And string trios yield nothing in terms of musical responsiveness and adaptability to a single player at the keyboard.

So what, then, of the IBO’s Goldbergs? Well, period instruments or no, you’d have to say theirs was a performance that fell between stools.

It lacked the clarity and brilliance that are to be found both in the keyboard original and the string trio version. Yet it also lacked the kind of weight that an orchestra would be expected to bring. There were too many players to succeed in one direction and too few to succeed in the other.

The best moments were those in which Sitkovetsky abandoned orchestral pretensions and opted instead to use groupings of solo instruments.

In the IBO’s performance, the solo sections worked to show up the limitations of the sections where everyone was in the picture. In the orchestrally scored sections, the most successful passages were those rare ones when you could imagine the music actually having been conceived for orchestra, the flourishes of the Overture (Variation 16) being the standout example.

Sitkovetsky’s arrangement actually includes a harpsichord continuo. I couldn’t help but feel at Christ Church last Thursday that a performance on harpsichord alone would have served everyone better.

The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra opened its new season last Friday with a programme called Viennese Swirls.

It’s a loose title from a Viennese perspective, as it consisted of a waltz by a man who was born in Hungary and whose mother tongue was Hungarian (Franz Lehár’s Gold and Silver), a piano concerto famous for and nicknamed after a performance in Frankfurt by a native of a city that’s still a four-hour drive from the Austrian capital (Salzburg-born Mozart’s Coronation concerto), a suite from an opera that is set in Vienna which was written by a man from Munich and given its premiere in Dresden (Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier suite) and one of the great orchestral extravaganzas of the 20th century, written by a Frenchman and premièred in Paris (Ravel’s La Valse, which was originally to have been titled Vienna, the change necessitated by the postwar feelings at the time of the work’s completion, in 1920).

But Vienna and the waltz, and Vienna and Mozart, seem so indelibly linked that, to non-Viennese music lovers, the absence of a Viennese composer in a Viennese concert programme hardly seems to matter.

And what of the music-making itself? The NSO’s principal conductor, Alan Buribayev, trained in Vienna, but his handling of this Viennese programme was not exactly subtle.

His approach to Lehár was not of the kind likely to have had many in the audience humming along, and he treated both the Strauss suite and the Ravel as brilliant showpieces rather than expressions of decadent Viennese sensuality.

On Friday he was certainly paying little attention to one of the precepts in Strauss’s advice to young conductors: “Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a brief glance to give an important cue.”

With Finghin Collins a nimble soloist, and Buribayev and his players providing crisp accompaniment, the highlight of the evening was the Mozart concerto.

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