This article first appeared in Limelight’s July 2018 magazine and is available free-to-read for the month of August. Click here to buy a copy.

Bernard Labadie is unfailingly polite, his words measured and precise. He doesn’t speak romantically about his string arrangement of that monument of classical music, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He instead repeatedly refers to it as “just a proposition”, like a very modest, low-key scientist. He doesn’t even criticise the 1985 Sitkovetsky string trio arrangement with any real heat – he simply says he finds it not particularly attuned to the style of the 18th century, and that it’s “totally fine” if some people like it. We’re speaking today because the Australian Chamber Orchestra is soon to give his much-admired arrangement of the Goldberg Variations its Australian premiere, and it’s clear that it’s been a little while since Labadie has had the chance to speak about it, pleased to recall memories now more than 20 years old.

Bernard Labadie. Photo © Dario Acosta 

Published in 1741, the Goldberg Variations occupy a giant patch of real estate in classical music, with many listeners finding their way to it via the landmark recordings made by Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. The Aria itself has been selected over 200 times on Desert Island Discs, and the work has found itself on many a film soundtrack over the years. What’s more, its origin myth is utterly delicious, which means it’s never been fully relinquished despite being easily debunked.

Supposedly composed to soothe the insomniac and sickly Count von Keyserlingk during his restless nights, it was said to have been played to him in an adjoining room by one of Bach’s pupils, a young harpsichord virtuoso named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. For his troubles, Bach was reportedly awarded a golden goblet filled to the brim with a hundred Louis d’ors, no mean gift.


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But out of the fanciful mists of the past. The Québécois conductor Bernard Labadie, long regarded as one of the leading figures of the Baroque and Classical repertoire, came to lay hands on the Goldbergs in 1997 at the insistence of his own chamber ensemble, Les Violons du Roy. In fact, they were agitating to play the Sitkovetsky trio arrangement, then riding a wave of popularity and probably one of the most regarded transcriptions of the Bach before Labadie’s hit the scene. “Many of my players were bugging me to do it. I listened to it, looked at the score, and decided to make my own,” he says. A characteristically simple summation from Labadie, and there’s similarly little whiff of grandness or fate about his account of his relationship with the piece.

“I fell in love with the music of Bach in general when I was very young, not even a teenager,” he says. “I think I was 11. I listened to as much music of his as I could, so I probably came across the Goldberg at some point.”

Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Nic Walker

When I ask if it was a piece that left a particular impression, he answers in the negative. More interested in Bach’s writing for choir and voices, Labadie admits to preferring the Passions, oratorios and cantatas in his youth. “It was really at the insistence of my orchestra that I paid it any special attention,” he says. 

Labadie admits to greatly underestimating the scale of the task. Beginning the arrangement sometime in 1997, the orchestra programmed and announced it for the following season before he had even come close to finishing. “I had to rush through it that summer, and we premiered it that fall. So right on schedule, but I had to work day and night, day and night. And then I made a few corrections along the way, but not that many,” he recalls.

It’s the process of wrangling the beast that he most enjoys reflecting on, speaking in great, long paragraphs. He surprises me by saying that he found the Sitkovetsky arrangement ‘too faithful’. “What I mean by that is that he took the keyboard part and gave every single note of the keyboard part to a string instrument that could play the exact same registers, the exact same lengths, the exact same rhythms,” he explains. “That’s why he needed a string trio to cover the whole compass of the keyboard, and that creates a texture which for me is completely alien to 18th-century music. You have, for instance, variations in two voices that are played by three people, where you never have more than two people playing together at the same time, meaning that when one line gets too high, it gets broken and given to another instrument. While that makes for some very virtuosic stuff, it’s a texture that an 18th-century musician would never have heard. Nobody would have done that. Because I come from the performance practice movement, this for me was a real problem that I hoped to redress with my own arrangement.”

Richard Tognetti, Artistic Director and Leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, readily concurs. “As clever as the Sitkovetsky one is, I agree with what I’ve read about Labadie’s reaction to it, which is not necessarily a negative reaction to the Sitkovetsky. You can use the word ‘agree’ in many different ways – the syntax of the Sitkovetsky didn’t agree with me. Let’s put it like that.” Tognetti attributes his less than favourable impression of the Sitkovetsky to matters of taste, finding it inappropriately Romantic like Labadie.

“For me it’s a sonic world that just doesn’t make sense when it comes to Bach,” Labadie stresses. “The reality is that when 18th-century composers would arrange or reuse music from other composers, they really didn’t care about respecting the original. The key was to create a language that would be idiomatic to the new instrument they were writing for. The clearest example is Bach himself. When he came to transcribe the Vivaldi Violin Concerto for keyboard, the solo part becomes something completely different because the harpsichord can do things that the violin cannot, and vice versa.”

For Labadie, his guiding principles were simple: tackle the Goldbergs like an 18th-century composer and make it sound like Bach without being slavishly faithful to the original. “The irony is that in the case of these problematic Variations, when you give to strings exactly what’s written for the keyboard, it doesn’t sound like Bach. You have to find a way of making it sound like someone could have written it that way in the 18th-century for the strings.”

He interrupts himself with a laugh, and admits that his arrangement remains a bit of a stretch. Bach himself would probably have never tried transcribing the Variations for strings, nor any other composer in the 18th century, he says. However, and this is the probing scientist in him, he adds that he found the challenge interesting in terms of process. “To sit down every day and look at this huge score and try to bring it into nearly another sound world is fascinating and rich and frustrating but ultimately worth it,” he says.

Bach

The relationship between the harpsichord, the original instrument for which the Goldbergs was written, and strings was a definite advantage for Labadie. “It’s clear that the string instrument can sing,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s easier to make a violin sing than a harpsichord – I think even the best harpsichordist in the world will agree with me on that. It opens a very wide field of possibilities, and it allows you to achieve a more lyrical approach to a piece which in certain sections is extremely convoluted. So I think this lyricism, the singing quality of the string instrument, helps make sense of Bach’s structure.”

The transfer to strings led to some surprises though. “You have to be unashamed about the jump in a way. Variation 25 for example is so heartrending when played by strings, it becomes almost post-Romantic music. It’s amazing. Even when you try to respect the idiom of the original instrument, the parameters become completely different when arranging and to some extent you have to forget about the original parameters.”

He catches himself, and says, “Whenever possible there’s no change to the original if there’s no reason to alter it.” He insists that all of the canons can be played just as they are – they only need to be written for the right instrument. Quite a few variations can be transcribed as they are as well – it was only a certain number, “perhaps 30 percent” that required extensive rewriting for strings. “The idea is that each variation is a closed world that has to sound idiomatic for the people who are playing it. If you have two violins and continuo then it needs to sound like a trio sonata.”

Tognetti, who is programming Labadie’s work alongside his own arrangement of Bach’s 14 Canons, praises the former for both its invention and ability to respect the idiom of the 18th century. “It sets it quite immaculately as per the original, and doesn’t take it into a 19th-century vernacular. And somehow it feels like a reimagining, as though Bach was scoring it for an orchestra, like a concerto grosso. It’s almost like the Seventh Brandenburg Concerto, which very much appeals to me. What Labadie has done with the Goldbergs, I’ve attempted to do with the Canons – filling out the orchestration and polishing it.”

Les Violons du Roy. Photo © David Cannon

Erin Helyard, who will provide harpsichord continuo for the ACO when it plays the Labadie arrangement, echoes Tognetti’s remarks. “It’s clear that he’s arranged it very much as an 18th-century person would have done. With soloists and a piano group and a harpsichord, it’s arranged as a sort of concerto grosso. If someone was given the very difficult task of doing that in 1750, that’s what they would have done.”

“The harpsichord functions as a chordal accompaniment in the work,” he adds. “And I find that, as continuo did for over two centuries, it binds disparate tone colours together in the orchestra, and it’s the perfect instrument to play alongside strings because of their similar attack profiles. You’ve got this wonderful mass of juicy belly sounds that come out and decay in a beautiful way that lets the strings through. It’s genius.”

When Labadie presented the finished product to Violons du Roy after that feverish summer of ‘97, he experienced both the relief of delivering on time and the dread of preparing it for performance. “The orchestra – it was a mixture of excitement and people becoming completely freaked out. Some variations are extremely difficult technically, as all Bach’s music for strings is. So while people were very happy to discover what made this arrangement different, everybody was a little overwhelmed by the technical challenge of performing it. It’s a very, very demanding piece technically. But Bach’s never easy anyway,” he laughs.

The rehearsal room proved very fruitful indeed, helping Labadie clarify what worked and what didn’t. Certain variations needed a bit of retouching, but Variation 8 in particular proved mystifyingly difficult to wrangle. “I kept hearing it played, and we worked and worked on it and every time I thought ‘that’s not right, something’s wrong with it’. And at some point it was like a light being switched on, and I knew that it was just too identical to the original Bach. I needed to add more things here, take some things away there. Before that I just hadn’t found the key to open the trove, and when I did all the pieces fit together and it felt and sounded much better.”

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg

This approach, of things being added and subtracted, and of an open mind, is what he hopes the audience will bring to the concert hall. “They have to expect something different. If you know your Goldberg inside and out and you expect simply the same thing, you will be disappointed. This arrangement is absolutely not intended to replace the original. It’s not even intended to be better. It’s just a different proposition, and I think that what unites the works of great geniuses like Bach is that their music very often can be presented in different guises and in doing so you actually allow people to dig deeper into it and maybe understand certain things differently.”

Tognetti hopes for the same open-mindedness, though puts it more succinctly. “I don’t know what the audience will expect, but if you don’t like it, then there’s something about your own prejudice rather than the arrangement.”

Although I wonder whether it’s reasonable to ask Labadie to speak about his work in terms of satisfaction, he surprises me by saying that of course he’s pleased with his arrangement. “Every time I come back to it, or if I happen to listen to it or catch it on the radio, I’m happy with the result. I love to conduct it – I’m sitting there doing nothing for two thirds of the piece, which I absolutely love. I’m just in the middle of the orchestra listening to this amazing music. I think it’s a nice and interesting proposition, so I was very happy to learn that the ACO was interested in performing and touring it. I think it’s a fabulous orchestra and I feel flattered and honoured that Richard has decided to tackle the monster. I’ve put it in different clothes, but it’s still a monster.”

“Every time I open the original score or listen to it, I’m amazed by Bach,” he continues. “It’s a tour de force of 31 entities that are schematically so similar in terms of numbers of bars and overall structure, but are at the same time emotionally so different. There’s no variation that sounds like the other – every one is a universe unto itself.”

“So to dare to change something of this nature, it’s extremely hard to do at the beginning,” Labadie reflects. “And when you start doing it, you try to do it little bit by little bit and then you realise it’s just not enough, and you need to go further. It’s the overwhelming respect that all musicians have for this piece – it’s a great asset but it can also completely freeze your imagination. My work is only a proposition. It’s a Bach lover having fun with what he loves the most in life, and that’s exactly what I did. And people seem to enjoy it.”


The Australian Chamber Orchestra performs Bernard Labadie’s arrangement as part of its Goldberg Variations national tour, from August 2 – 16

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine