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Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011

Frankly Music's Masterful, Unified 'Goldberg Variations'

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Albert Einstein stated about music, “I never like a work if I cannot intuitively grasp its inner unity.” Architectural unity came to mind listening to J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations at Frankly Music last week. A soulful aria theme is taken through 30 variations, unified by harmony and structure, but dizzying in a deep exploration of disciplined variety.

The set of variations was commissioned by an insomniac count for a harpsichordist companion (Johann Gottlieb Goldberg) to play for him during sleepless nights. Violinist Frank Almond, violist Kyle Armbrust and cellist Edward Arron played a marvelous transcription by Dmitri Sitkovetsky. As the music began I was hyper-aware of the original keyboard piece, with echoes of Glenn Gould in my head. But this transcription is so skillfully good, and the music itself is so transfixing, that after a few minutes it emerged as a string trio piece in its own right. As is true with much keyboard music, the number of voices being played changes freely, which gave the transcriber some room for invention.

The world is certainly more than big enough for period-specific performances of Bach to live alongside Bach on modern instruments, which was the case here. The three players were exceedingly well matched, and all were equal in importance. Armbrust's viola tone was an artful chameleon, alternating from sounding like an extension of the violin or cello, depending on context and the range of the playing.

Unlike most other composers, when Bach is best rendered it's almost as if the musicians disappear into the music. That sensation happened for me at this performance. In the most illuminated stretches it was as if the music emerged from one unified, multi-voiced, conceptual string instrument, which is about the highest compliment I can give these wonderful players. The audience at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music was lulled into a meditative silence of restful alertness.

To warm up the ear, pianist Michael Mizrahi played Bach's French Suite No. 5 in G Major with taste, evenness and buoyant tone. He especially found a joyful groove in the liveliest movements, the Courante and the finale Gigue.