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GRAMOPHONE ( 02 / 2018)
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Reviewer: Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

‘Variations on Variations’ sees Rinaldo Alessandrini take keyboard works by JS Bach which adopt the variation as their generating musical principle, then vary them further himself by reworking them for the Concerto Italiano chamber forces of violin, viola, cello and violone, him directing from the harpsichord.  

Alessandrini’s own introductory words are, ‘What you hear makes no pretence at orthodoxy. It is, rather, a divertissement, a subtle intellectual pleasure.’ However, that’s rather playing things down, because while there is subtlety here, it’s a subtly wrought brilliance that’s far more than mere divertissement. Equally, this is far from an orthodoxy-free zone, as becomes eminently clear if you consider his Goldberg Variations in the context of the two other notable existing transcriptions of it: Sitkovetsky’s arrangement for string trio (with Sitkovetsky on violin, Mischa Maisky on cello and Gerard Caussé on viola – Orfeo, 8/86, 12/86), and Labadie’s stringorchestra arrangement for Les Violons du Roy (ATMA Classique).  

Take the opening Aria, where, far from pulling up the variations’ harpsichord roots, Alessandrini thoroughly beds them down by beginning with the solo harpsichord of the original. Then, when the instrumentation does flower out into ensemble writing, the original’s austere grace has been absolutely nailed, Antonio de Secondi’s violin tenderly singing the melody line to the gentle swells of the bare-bones strings accompaniment. There’s a harpsichord-faithful amount of air between the notes too, thanks both to their forces being considerably leaner than those of Les Violons du Roy and their smooth but just detached enough articulation. The harpsichord then maintains a firm presence throughout the subsequent movements, bringing a strong overall sense of cohesion to their switches between full ensemble, two instruments plus basso continuo, and two instruments minus bass; textural variety which Sitkovetsky’s trio, excellent though it is, can’t match.  

The harpsichord Passacaglia in C minor, BWV582, the A minor Variations for harpsichord, BWV989, and the organ Canzona in D minor, BWV588, make up the rest of this most authentic of inauthentic transcription projects.

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