Classical Review: Phoenix Ensemble

Bach: Goldberg Variations. Christchurch, May 2.

Bach (photo credit: Painting by Elias Gottlob Haussmann)
(photo credit: Painting by Elias Gottlob Haussmann)
Bach’s Goldberg Variations, arranged for strings by Bernard Labadie, were performed by the Phoenix Ensemble of early instruments, directed by Myrna Herzog.
Arranging a harpsichord solo work by Bach for strings is a daring undertaking.
Conductor Labadie’s attitude of “anything you can do I can do better” with regard to Bach is hardly appropriate. Bach, after all, may be credited with having known his period instruments at least as well as Labadie, and probably would have used them if he had felt so inclined.
The strings’ songful sound is hardly a substitute for the harpsichord’s decisive-incisive keyboard touch, a characteristic of this work. The instrumental balance was also problematic since the delicate sounds of the harpsichord were mostly drowned out by the domineering strings.
In its unaccompanied solo variations, Marina Minkin’s harpsichord renditions sounded, therefore, most impressive.
On the other hand, the diverse tone colors of the various string instruments provided the welcome advantage of creating transparency for the work’s intricate polyphonic textures. Consequently, one could appreciate Bach’s contrapuntal ingenuity in all its glory. And that was the significant artistic achievement of this excellent performance.