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Review: Bach’s ‘Goldbergs’ Arranged for Strings? Why Not?


“Why the hell did you arrange it?”

That’s the question the conductor Bernard Labadie said he’s usually asked when a Bach lover learns that Mr. Labadie arranged the “Goldberg” Variations for chamber orchestra.

After all, Bach composed that monumental set of 30 variations on a lilting theme for solo harpsichord. The piece has long been claimed by pianists, especially since Glenn Gould created a sensation with his 1955 recording. But an arrangement for strings?

Why not, Mr. Labadie said to the audience at Zankel Hall on Thursday, before leading the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in an elegant and lively account of his arrangement, written in 1997 for the ensemble Les Violons du Roy, which recorded it. (The program was part of the orchestra’s three-week, citywide Bach festival.)

Why not, indeed. As Mr. Labadie, who is completing his first season as the orchestra’s principal conductor, said, in Bach’s day it was common practice for composers to freely arrange one another’s works. For many pieces, the instrumentation was not fixed, which offered an open invitation to adapt existing scores.

For his version of the “Goldbergs,” Mr. Labadie put himself in the mind-set of an early 18th-century composer who would have felt open to be creative in his arranging. He adds to and subtracts from the music, sometimes folding in a newly written complementary line, or fleshing out an inner voice that seems implied in the original.

His admirable creativity and pluck comes through at the start, with the theme, scored for just four instruments: violin, viola, cello and lute. With the gentle colors of the lute as part of the continuo backing, the theme sounds like an old-world sarabande, with echoes of the Renaissance.

In the sprightly first variation, Mr. Labadie’s arrangement for full string orchestra sounds like a hearty concerto grosso. And halfway through the 80-minute work, Bach begins anew with a grand French overture: a theme played in emphatic chords and upward-sweeping flourishes of scales. Mr. Labadie’s revelatory arrangement makes that evocation explicit.

Still, it’s exciting to hear a harpsichord or piano trying to be an entire Baroque chamber orchestra, and some of that feistiness is lost in this arrangement. In the dazzlingly virtuosic variations, Mr. Labadie often divides the keyboard passagework between a couple of featured performers, which makes the music seem more playable and less daring. There remain challenges galore, though, which the impressive St. Luke’s musicians readily dispatched.

Mr. Labadie wisely knows when to kept things simple: Certain variations, written as contrapuntal canons in just two voices, are played with lovely, subdued clarity by two solo strings. This arrangement both honors Bach’s masterpiece and has some fun with it.

Orchestra of St. Luke’s

Performed on Thursday at Zankel Hall, Manhattan.



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