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Goldberg Variations - NZSO

Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

It’s the Goldberg Variations, Jim, but not as we know it. For this latest concert, members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra joined forces with Stephen de Pledge, on the fortepiano, to present a variation on the Variations, drawing on multiple different transcriptions of the Bach classic. Seated in a semi-circle and in semi-darkness, the players took turns stepping into the light, forming ensembles of varying shapes and sizes as they cycled through the piece.

De Pledge, playing on a replica of an eighteenth century fortepiano, seemed hesitant initially, blurring or missing a few early notes. Nor was the sound of the fortepiano especially pleasant, its timbre buzzing away somewhere between a harpsichord and a modern piano. But as the performance warmed up, so too did de Pledge’s playing; I enjoyed the subtle textures, the clarity of the more chordal passages, and the gentle, almost bell-like tones in the upper register.

In dramatic terms, the arrangements were highly effective: with players entering and exiting, and the lighting adjusting accordingly, it had the air of a stage play as much as a classical concert. Musically, however, it was a mixed bag.

In the ever-changing cast of ensembles, featuring a mix of string, woodwind, harp and fortepiano, there were stand-out moments, especially the harp’s rendition of the Aria, a moment of quiet beauty that held us in hushed concentration. The most spirited of the woodwind passages were immensely enjoyable; in the slower movements the strings – with director Vesa-Matti Leppanen to the fore – played with great warmth and clarity.

At times, though, the timbres were muddy or just a bit middle-of-the-road. And more generally, I felt divided about the experiment of welding together so many different approaches to the Variations. So varied are the Variations, even in their natural, keyboard-only state, that the thread holding them together can seem tenuous at the best of times. When the shift was not just variation to variation but timbre to timbre, sometimes it felt as if the thread had snapped altogether, and continuity was lost.

That said, as with any good transcription, there was a genuine joy in hearing a new angle on a familiar set of melodies, a new world of sonic possibilities, a new light cast on a familiar landscape. This version of the Variations is unlikely to displace the standard rendition in my affections, but I’m very glad all the same to have heard it.

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