IT may not be flattering to be asked to write a piece of music to help put someone to sleep, but as the story goes, this was the inspiration for J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations.
The 1741 Aria and 30 variations are said to have been commissioned by Count Keyserling, an insomniac, to have played to him during sleepless nights by a Bach's student (named Goldberg). Their effectiveness is not documented, but judging from the riveting performance and standing ovation Monday night, they may be deemed a failure.
We are familiar with the Goldbergs being played on harpsichord and piano, but through a stroke of genius, Russian violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky created a string trio arrangement that is completely charming.
Prior to the performance, violist David Harding called the work "one of the most difficult pieces for string trio," but he and colleagues Yehonatan Berick, violin, and cellist Paul Marleyn possessed this work, easily making us converts to the transcription.
The opening theme was as restful as a sigh, played with resonant patience. When it returned at the end it was exactly the same -- not weary -- as you might expect after 30 demanding and diverse variations. This versatile and adventurous trio of artists kept things equally well-paced throughout the rapid and intricate passages as they did in the more gently rendered. Spirit was maintained, while adding a texture and stylistic approach a harpsichord could not accomplish.
In some variations, strong rhythmic patterns were sharply defined, never forsaking the musicality so crucial to interpreting Bach, while others swept along with a continuous flow, as parts moved between performers. The three musicians expertly lent just the right mood to every variation.
This was a marvellous effort with highly enjoyable results.
Earlier in the evening, Berick and Marleyn were joined by pianist Thomas Sauer in the appealing Piano Trio in D minor by Russian composer Anton Arensky. Melody rules this work and the artists made the most of it. Berick opened with generous tone and phrasing, Marleyn's cello sang lovingly while Sauer's fingers flew across the keyboard in rippling passages. This was dramatic, exciting, no-holds-barred playing.
The playful scherzo was punctuated with pizzicato, while Sauer's technique was on display in intricate activity. Who knew a cello could dance? In Marleyn's hands, the big string instrument showed it could be light on its toes. Violin and cello bowed phrases that swayed and swooped, accompanied by almost comical oom-pah continuo. The audience even chuckled at the bright little ending.
The only downer of the show was the opening work played by Harding and Sauer -- Britten's Lachrymae, reflections on a song of Dowland for viola and piano. Sombre and unwelcoming, full of unpleasing dissonance and harshness, it started the evening off on an unfortunate note. And while played with expertise, listening to some of the squealy overtones had the effect of fingernails scraped on a blackboard. Poor Dowland was indiscernible in this poor selection for a concert start.
The festival continues this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. with Berick playing the entire Paganini Caprices at St. Margaret's Anglican Church.