Tuesday, March 20, 2018

New Arrangement of BWV 988 for Bach’s Birthday

As was announced exactly a week ago, today was the day that Noontime Concerts presented in Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral a celebration of the 333rd birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach with a return visit by the Albany Consort, led from the harpsichord Jonathan Salzedo, who co-founded the group with his wife Marion Rubinstein in 1974. The program consisted entirely of Bach’s BWV 988 set of 30 (“Goldberg”) variations on an aria theme, playing Salzedo’s own arrangement for string ensemble. Readers probably know that there is already such an arrangement by Dmitry Sitkovetsky, which has received at least two performances (by the New Century Chamber Orchestra and the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, respectively) in this city.

In Salzedo’s advance material for this concert, he seemed to apologize for being “an incurable experimenter;” but he had no need to do so. Sitkovetsky wrote his arrangement for a contemporary chamber orchestra, while the members of the Albany Consort play historical instruments; and any listener capable of telling the difference would have easily recognized how Salzedo knew how to use his resources to better advantage. Those resources consisted of two first violins (Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo, daughter of Jonathan and Marion, and Rachel Hurwitz) and three second violins (Aaron Westman, Maxine Nemerovski, and David Wilson). All other instruments had a single performer: viola (Katherine Hagen), cello (Joyce Park), violone (Roy Whelden), organ (Rubinstein), and harpsichord (Salzedo).

On the whole Salzedo had an excellent ear for realizing even the most keyboard-dependent passages for these instruments. There were times when I wondered whether Bach’s polyphony might have been better served by one-to-a-part playing; but, for the most part, Salzedo knew how to use ripieno sonorities to their best advantage. When single instruments were preferable, he knew when to draw upon them, even to the point of setting one of the variations as a “family trio.” Furthermore, because the duration of a Noontime Concerts performance is limited (and because the priest celebrating the noon Mass today has a habit of running late), Salzedo dropped all repeats, thus serving up what may be the briskest possible account of all of the variations.

Nevertheless, there were problems. The most noticeable of these involved intonation; but, to be fair, the altar space of Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral has serious acoustic problems. Even in intimate proximity, there is something about that space that sucks up the sound, almost to the point that a violinist might not even be able hear clearly what his/her stand partner is doing. This would also explain why some of the more rapid passages were overcome by excessively ragged articulation.

On the other hand, as I write this, I cannot recall if that last time that the Albany Consort came into the San Francisco city limits was also the last time they played for Noontime Concerts (which would have been nine years ago). The fact is that they deserve just as much attention as the many other early music groups in the Bay Area. Those who organize concerts might want to bear in mind that, where this group is concerned, the Peninsula and the East Bay should not be having most of the fun!

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