After many years of preparation and performance Calefax decided it was time to record Bach’s Goldberg Variations and we are delighted to present the results of these recordings to you. There are three ways to enjoy this release, firstly by listening to the audio CD of course. In addition to this, for those who read music we have included the full score of the arrangement as a PDF file. (Only on the fysical CD). You can view this score on the DVD by inserting it into your computer’s DVD drive and click on ‘Goldberg Score’. Lastly, for music lovers who are interested in some additional information, we have made a video recording in which Raaf Hekkema talks about the musical background of the Goldberg Variations, and Calefax play a few excerpts (Only on the fysical CD). To view this video you can play the DVD either in your DVD player or on your computer. Reed players can also have a go at playing the music themselves - the sheet music of the Goldberg Variations (score and parts) is available through www.calefax.com. You will also find below some thoughts on the Goldberg Variations by Raaf Hekkema, the arranger of the reed quintet version.
People who have been reading a bit about one of Bach’s most beloved works, the Goldberg Variations, know that the piece was written for Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk’s personal harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to soothe Von Keyserlingk’s sleepless nights. Poetic as this may sound, it is a doubtful history, mostly because of the fact that Goldberg could not have been older than fourteen at the time of conception of the piece (and the music really seems too hard for even the most talented fourteen year old!). Nevertheless, the piece owes its widespread name to it. We can assume that the work was conceived for scholars, to practice the fine art of playing the keyboard. Bach categorized it as the fourth part of his Clavier Übung, or Keyboard Practice, and it was most likely never intended to be integrally played in a concert. Yet the architectural outline of the piece is as masterful as we can expect from a genius.
Thirty variations, framed by the aria on which bass line is being varied: the aria opens and closes the set. Thirty-two movements in all, based on a thirtytwo-note bass line. Half way, at variation number sixteen, there is a French overture, as some sort of a reopening. The thirty variations are divided in ten goups of three variations, each first of which is a character piece; a dance (variation 7), a fughetta (variation 10), an aria (variation 13) or that French overture (var.16).
The second variation in such a group of three is usually a toccata-like display of virtuosity. Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations for a relatively new sort of harpsichord that had two keyboards (manuals). This facilitated the crossing of the hands (and therewith the voices), and a slight difference between the sound of each manual was made possible. Still, the crossing of the voices is barely audible even on such a harpsichord. The reed quintet arrangement reveals this constructional oddity because the instruments each have their own timbre, hence the voicing and the crossing of voices can be heard more easily. This effect is audible in variations 5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 23, 26 and 29.
Each of the ten groups is concluded by a two-part canon with an accompanying bass. Now in these canons something funny is happening. To Bach, a canon seems to have been what a cross-word puzzle or a Sudoku is to us; something to keep his head going. So he strikes a tune, lets a second voice play the same thing a bit later, and tries to make it sound right. This may sound like a good puzzle, but to Bach that wasn’t enough. In the second canon, variation 6, the second voice plays the tune a tone higher. This could only have been done by a genius like Bach, anticipating like a top chess player; Bach clearly designed his melodies for the situation. In the third canon (being variation 9) he has the second voice at two tones interval. But in variation 12, where the interval of a fourth is reached, Bach clearly gets a bit bored and decides to play the next level. The second voice (the bassoon) does not copy the melody of the oboe, but plays it upside down! Variation 15 is in minor for a change, and again Bach turns the melody in the second voice upside down. This continues until 27, and we expect variation 30 to be at the interval of 9 tones. But this is also the concluding movement, before returning to the aria again, so Bach decides to make a joke. This final movement, the Quodlibet, is a potpourri of merry tunes of his time that certainly must have raised a few eyebrows. Unfortunately the songs that Bach quotes are no longer in fashion, the texts of them are quite trivial: “Ich bin so lang nicht bei Dir g’west” (It has been so long since I visited you) and “Kraut und Ruben haben mich vertrieben” (Sauerkraut and turnips have scared me away).
When I make a new version of an old piece for Calefax, I strive to create something that can stand on its own apart from the original. This means that the original, which was made for another instrumental body, has to be stripped from its formal aspects and brought back to the essence: the musical idea. Sometimes, this means I will have to create something that is quite far from the original musical text – merely because a reed quintet cannot play what a harpsichord can and vice versa. The new version should be a new work of art, with its own merit, highlighting other aspects of the piece than the original. And whether one finds joy in comparing them or not, that’s up to the listener.
When I set off studying the Goldberg Variations in order to decide whether it would be fit for an arrangement, I soon found out that I had to dispose of the golden rule that I had always followed until then: that the resulting parts for the instruments should be as if Bach had written them for similar instruments of his time. The virtuosity and the character of this music required a different approach, closer to recomposing in contemporary style for Reed Quintet than arranging. But then again, the result was intended to be something novel, offering a new perspective on some beloved and well-known music. Furthermore I wanted the piece to be as diverse and diverting as could be, or in the words of the creator (on the original title page); “Den Liebhabern zur Gemüthsergetzung verfertiget” (created for the joy of the [music] lover). I therefore decided to dispose of all the repetitions, thus making the piece about forty minutes in duration, instead of the usual eighty. I desired the piece to be a display of the possibilities of the reed quintet (and Calefax in particular), using ten different instruments from our collection, and allowing the audience to hear them individually as well. So the whole set is full of duos and trios, constantly shifting sound and atmosphere, even more so than the original. (Raaf Hekkema, translation Guy Raybold)
Calefax, established 26 years ago, are now in great demand worldwide, not least because of their unique instrumentation. The quintet performs standing up and introduces itself and the program to the audience. Through masterclasses and workshops the Calefax musicians pass on their specific ways of working and musical experiences to new generations. For musicians as well as composers, for audiences and press alike, Calefax continues to be an inspiring chamber music laboratory. The members of Calefax have built a fine reputation with their own arrangements for Reed Quintet. In addition to these, some eighty new works written for the group complement the repertoire which spans about eight centuries of music history. The sheet music of the Goldberg Variatons is available from the CalefaxEDITION catalogue and can, along with many other arrangements, be ordered through the website www.calefax.com.