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Trevor Pinnock and RAM - Bach: Goldberg Variations - MusicWeb International

I know that piece of music, but what is it? Inability to quickly identify a piece of very familiar music may not be related to memory failure, but because the music is presented in a totally different, and unexpected guise. A case in point is the ‘Grand Partita’ for 13 wind instruments, K361 by Mozart, which has been transcribed for piano solo (Swoon, The Piano Album, ABC Classics 980 046-2). In this instance David Stanhope was responsible for both the arrangement and the rendition.

The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 was composed by Bach for harpsichord. It consists of an aria and 30 variations. Among Bach devotees, very few will be unfamiliar with this masterpiece, especially in the version for piano by the great Canadian player, Glenn Gould. The review CD presents BWV 988 in a startlingly different way: an arrangement for flute, oboe, cor anglais, bassoon and strings. The format is the exact reverse of the aforementioned example. This extraordinary arrangement of BWV 988 for small orchestra was completed in 1938 by Jozef Koffler. Born in 1896, Koffler was Polish and a widely recognized composer, music teacher, musicologist and musical columnist. He studied music with Paul Graener, Arnold Schoenberg, and Felix Weingartner. Koffler was the first Polish composer before World War II to apply Schoenberg’s 12-tone composition technique. It has been noted that with regard to BWV 988, the combination of his own modernist sensibility and deep respect for the Baroque, produced a compelling score. Koffler died at the hands of the Nazis toward the end of the War.

The Goldberg Variations remained somewhat for specialised taste until Glenn Gould’s first recording in 1956; it represents one of the most successful classical recordings of all times. In 1981, a year before Gould died, he made a second recording, sales of which exceeded 2 million by 2000. Today, recorded versions are ubiquitous.

The review disc is a widely anticipated consequence of Trevor Pinnock’s UK premiere of the Koffler arrangement at the Wigmore Hall in 2019. The small orchestra comprises the Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble, with guests from The Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory, Toronto who represent six of the 15 string players. The recording was made at the Snape Maltings in Suffolk. The interior packaging photographic scenes of the village are visually echoed in the painting (Shtetl, 1934) by Chara Kowalska on the exterior, and liner notes. Kowalska also died at the hands of the Nazis.

Linn recordings are highly regarded by those who demand good sound engineering and high sonic qualities, aside from essential artistic integrity. This CD does not disappoint in either category, and excels in the latter. The Koffler arrangement is revelatory, and adds a new dimension of understanding and appreciation to the original masterpiece. Could it be performed any better than this occasion? I would not volunteer as the intrepid judge to make such an affirmative evaluation, but I doubt so.

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MusicWeb International
08 February 2021