Bach: Variations on variations

concerto italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini
naïve OP30575
BWV582, 588, 988, 989

There seems to be no end to the processes of second-guessing the inventiveness of Bach’s gift of parodying his own compositions. Re-cycling music too good not to find a continuing life was clearly a temptation to which he frequently yielded. A few years ago a chamber group from Philadelphia, Tempesta di Mare, produceded a CD of the Trio Sonatas for organ (BWV 525-530) arranged for a variety of period instruments by Richard Stone: some movements already existed as prototypes, parodied by Bach himself as sinfonias in cantatas. I much enjoyed hearing them, and indeed bought the transcriptions and have played a number of them. Now Rinaldo Alessandrini has taken a number of Bach works where Variations are the linking theme, and scored them for a few strings and continuo.

The results are enjoyable, and mostly pretty successful. The Passacaglia in C minor taken from BWV 582 (which Alessandrini outdatedly claims was for the pedal harpsichord originally) sounds well on strings in D minor. The way the melodic material of successive variations frequently grows out of the preceding figurations suits the four-part string instrument texture well, as does the polyphony of the fugue. This is a full-blooded performance, and lets you know what you are in for, in terms of a “no holds barred” style.

A lover of Vivaldi, Alessandrini sees the potential in developing a keyboard work into a rather fuller texture. While the Canzona (BWV 588) is a literal transcription, and the Italian Aria variations translate pretty straightforwardly into a sonata for violin and basso continuo, it is in the Goldberg Variations that we see him working the sketchy counterpoint possible on the keyboard – where there are frequent hints of a third or even fourth part in more polyphonic variations – into new, freely composed parts. Sometimes the result goes with a swing (as in Variation 1) or lets us hear in detail what the keyboard original only suggests. Sometimes it is too far from the original, and sounds almost like Brahms (as in the minor Variation 25). So, while I admire Alessandrini’s ingenuity (and his normally pretty minimalist continuo playing), I am not altogether taken with his arrangements here, though his rather spare sounds are certainly an improvement in textural terms on the chamber orchestra version recorded by Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy in 2014.

All this is a long way from Stokowsky’s orchestration of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and Bach, after all, was known to improvise a third voice when playing continuo, but I am not sure that I’ll play these Goldbergs in wakeful hours of the night. Each variation’s scoring raises some new hare running in my mind, and I’d be endlessly switching on the light and reaching for the score. I’m more likely to keep it in the car for long journeys.

On the whole, it’s a stimulating exercise, and well worth doing, though for my money Tempesta di Mare and Richard Stone do it better, if you want to explore the possibilities of this kind of parody technique.

David Stancliffe