Schoenberg: String Trio, op.45
Bach (arr. Trio Zimmermann): Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Antoine Tamestit (viola)
Christian Poltéra (cello)
Schoenberg’s String Trio is well-nigh universally considered not only one of the composer’s greatest works but one of the finest of the genre (a notoriously difficult combination of instruments). So it sounded here in this outstanding performance from the Trio Zimmermann. Febrile, disjunct, and yet finding ultimate unity in that state, it unavoidably brings – and here brought – late Beethoven to mind; this is music that, in Michael Cherlin’s words, ‘is full of abrupt and striking changes of texture and affect as musical ideas are broken off, interrupted by other ideas that are themselves interrupted’. It proved hyper- in almost every respect: almost too much to listen to, yet so commanding of one’s attention that one can do no other. Strange, unheimlich ghosts of old Vienna danced before us, ghosts in anything other than a machine. Schoenberg’s Lisztian form of several-movements-in-one, familiar also from Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, achieved both further compression and further relief in a performance that made every phrase, indeed every note count. The difficulty of the medium as such never really registered; rather, this was a challenging, all-absorbing musical drama. And drama it was above all, reminding me of words Schoenberg spoke concerning this Fourth String Quartet, yet of relevance here too: ‘I said this time I must compose like Mozart does it, without looking at all whether I see relations or not, juxtaposing ideas. … The characteristic for Mozart is this interruption, I would not be sure to contend that this is a higher or a more primitive technique [than Beethoven]. It is difficult to evaluate this aesthetically. I think it derived from his dramatic technique.’ Here, it surely derived from Schoenberg’s too.
Bach’s Goldberg Variations have received a number of transcriptions and arrangements. Some have opted for supposedly Baroque forces and formations – which almost seemed hinted at in Trio Zimmermann’s performance of the opening ‘Aria’, less so elsewhere. Others have taken advantage of ‘modern’ possibilities, ranging from one of the earliest in 1883, by Josef Rheinberger (revised by Reger), for two pianos, to the 1938 orchestral version by Polish dodecaphonist Józef Koffler. More recent contributions have included two for string trio, from Dmitry Sitkovetsky (1984) and Federico Sarudiansky (2010). Sitkovetsky’s version came at a time of peak ‘authenticity’, when certain voices would frown upon any such reimagination. Following his 2009 revision, he recalled: ‘When I first wrote my transcription of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations for string trio, in 1984, it was both a labour of love and an obsession with the 1981 Glenn Gould recording. […] Generally, at that time, transcriptions were out of fashion and I recall that my own colleagues and managers were sceptical about such an audacious idea. Since then, my transcriptions have been played all over the world and moreover they have opened the floodgates of new interpretive possibilities for the piece, which have included solo harp, wind instruments of all kinds, saxophone quartets, Renaissance viols and even a fascinating concoction of Uri Caine, among many others.’ First having played Sitkovetsky’s edition, the players of the Trio Zimmermann subsequently decided to join this merry throng, offering an alternative to Sitkovetsky, in a version ‘which is as much as possible neither an arrangement nor a transcription, but basically an unveiling of Bach’s score and its genius’.
I am not entirely sure I follow that meaning, but there was certainly much to relish in the performance. Following that curiously – I assume deliberately – ‘white’ Aria, something more Classical emerged: doubtless as much a matter of the ‘Classical’ instruments as performance, yet a matter of that too, I think. Warmly expressive, highly variegated, never lapsing into too-easy Romanticism, this was throughout a performance in which procedures were clear – one could almost see, Schoenberg-like, inversions in an imaginary score, as well as hear them – yet also placed within a familiar, if never hackneyed schema of musical history: viols occasionally behind it, especially in the minor mode, the (once-)central Austro-German tradition in front. Endless invention was experienced, yet so was the contemplative emotion of Bach’s Passions. Canonical variations maintained the integrity of their own progression, yet also played a crucial role in punctuating their companions. There was sadness to Wanda Landowska’s ‘black pearl’ (no.25) without becoming overwrought; perhaps it might even have been ‘blacker’ at times. Whatever the truth of that, there was a splendid sense of release to be felt in its successor, no.26, treated to richer, not necessarily more Romantic, tone, as if Purcell were being recomposed before our ears. Bach moved towards conclusion in very different ways, ever closer, yet ever reinventive, the restatement of the Aria unquestionably an arrival rather than a mere return.