Strange Sounds

If, after a nuclear disaster or catastrophic meteor strike, there survived only four superb classical instrumentalists – an oboist, a clarinettist, a basset horn player and a bassoonist – and little sheet music other than an arrangement for these four of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, then I might perhaps be willing to listen to them play it. Otherwise, not.


I attended the world premiere of an arrangement of the Goldberg for these four instruments last night in Prague, played with astonishing precision, verve, mischief and technical brilliance by four Czech musicians, two of whom I knew well from the classical music competition my company, LLP Group, sponsored more than a decade ago, and one of whom, the bassoonist Vaclav Vonasek, will shortly join the Berlin Philharmonic (see Two Musicians to be Proud Of). Vaclav was the brilliant culprit behind this eccentric arrangement (and, he assured me, he left out none of the notes).

Now, I am not especially conservative or pedantic when it comes to authenticity and performance. Rearrangements for instruments and voices other than those for which a piece of music was written can be illuminating. I sometimes even enjoy shifts of genre (I’m all for diversity) and the music of Bach is generally more amenable than most to various forms of reengineering. There is something to be enjoyed even in the ghastly jazz versions by the Jacques Loussier trio (listen to their ‘Play Bach’ Goldberg Variations here (no, actually, on second thoughts this is quite astonishingly repugnant)). Unusual contexts (railway stations, shopping malls, swimming pools) can bring something new to our understanding of music.

I have around six different recordings of the Goldberg Variations (I know people with many more), including one of  an arrangement for string orchestra, and both of the Glenn Gould versions. I enjoy them all and am not quite sure why I choose one on one day and another on another. So I was intrigued when Vaclav announced his ‘experiment’ and was sorry to enjoy it only in so far as I could force myself whilst listening to imagine it played on a keyboard instrument.

The problem lay in the fact that the different sounds and styles of these four instruments suggested that the variations are a conversation carried on between them, as if there are up to four quite separate musical lines in the music, which, I think, there are not. It might have worked better on four more similar instruments, four saxophones, or four stringed instruments. Whilst Bach’s Art of Fugue is amenable to such treatment, indeed requires it, the Goldberg Variations is more of a monologue than a conversation. Vaclav admitted as much when suggested to me afterwards that it should somehow be experienced in mono rather than stereo. Unfortunately I don’t have mono ears, even though I have always had difficulty in hearing stereo.

viola organista

By chance I was also listening yesterday to another strange instrument, the viola organista, designed by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century. It never caught on in a big way, but one of the ‘Poles of the worst sort’ whom I met last week in Warsaw kindly gave me a recording of arrangements and original music written for the instrument. From a distance it looks like a harpsichord but it’s actually a very sophisticated kind of hurdy-gurdy. Rotating wheels, powered by a pedal, ‘scrape’ strings that are raised or lowered by the keys of a keyboard, just as a bow plays the strings of a viola, though I suppose in this case it’s the strings that are moving up and down. Vibrato and dynamics can be controlled by touch, but the varieties of tone and attack are limited. The result is a pleasant sound that’s a blend of organ and string orchestra, and quite unique. Certainly worth listening to. I look forward to hearing the Goldberg Variations on the viola organista.

Hear Slawomir Zubrzycki play one that he constructed himself.

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