Labadie Goes for the Goldberg by Wah Keung Chan
/ September 1, 1997
Bernard Labadie is the founding artistic director of the Quebec
early music ensemble Les Violons du Roy and also the artistic
director of the Opéra de Québec. On August 21, Labadie and Les
Violons du Roy made their New York debut at Lincoln Center's Mostly
Mozart Festival to critical acclaim. On September 26 in Quebec City
and Sept. 27 in Montreal, Les Violons du Roy will premiere Labadie's
own orchestral arrangement of Bach's famous Goldberg Variations. La
Scena Musicale spoke to Labadie in August before he left for New
LSM: Tell us about Les Violons du
The orchestra was founded in 1984 and
consists of 8 violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos, 1 double bass and
harpsichord or organ continuo. Since 1988 we have been using modern
instruments with period bows; it is part of our characteristic
sound. I have found that using period bows on modern instruments
works very well since a significant part of baroque sound and
articulation comes from the use of the bow as well as from the
instrument itself. I believe in using period instruments for baroque
works, but our approach allows the orchestra to tackle different
repertoires throughout the year. We have to be flexible in a small
community like Quebec City. My musical philosophy is to take
different stylistic approaches to different repertoires without
being confined to a stylistic ghetto.
LSM: In addition to the Lincoln Center debut,
you will be touring Handel's Messiah with Les Violons du Roy in
Ontario, and also touring Ontario and Western Canada in March 1998.
The future of the orchestra depends on
successful touring. Quebec City is a small market and with the
Orchestre symphonique de Québec already presenting a full season
here, we have to expand elsewhere.
LSM: Tell us about your transcription of the
As you know, Bach's Goldberg Variations were
written for harpsichord. There is already an arrangement for
orchestra by Dimitri Sitkovetsky, which was shown to me by my
musicians who suggested that we perform it. I thought I could
improve on aspects of Sitkovetsky's transcription. In transcribing a
keyboard work for a string ensemble I wanted to make more dramatic
transformations in the idiom than Sitkovetsky did. He more or less
faithfully transcribed every single note from keyboard to strings.
Baroque composers would never have done that. They would have
transformed the music to adapt it to the string orchestra medium.
That's basically what I've done with this arrangement. Not exactly
the way Bach would have done it, but the way an 18th century
composer might have approached the task. In our September concert
we'll devote the first half to examples of eighteenth-century
transcription, namely two concertos by Charles Avison modelled on
Scarlatti keyboard sonatas, and Geminiani's arrangement of Corelli's
La Folia, originally a sonata for violin and continuo.
The Goldberg Variations has always been one
of my favourite pieces in the keyboard repertoire. It's a
fascinating example of how Bach takes a simple idea and runs with
it. I like the recordings by Scott Ross and Gustav Leonhardt. I used
to listen to Glenn Gould's version a lot but now I can't stand it.
In some of the variations he is wonderful, but in others he kills
the music, making it sound more like Gould than Bach.
I've always been passionately interested in
Bach's music in general. His capacity to recycle his music was
phenomenal. He wrote 2 or 3 versions of every composition,
constantly reusing his own music, transforming it to an extent that
would be unthinkable to modern musicians. Ironically today's period
practice movement has given the word "authentic" a sacred meaning
that has nothing to do with historical practices. We are always
speculating about original versions on original instruments but in
many cases what we consider an original version is actually a second
or third version. The very composers whom we try to perform
authentically, like Handel, often rewrote their operas for different
singers. Rewriting is a fundamental aspect of baroque music that
today's musicians tend to forget. We shouldn't be paralyzed by the
way we think it was done in the 18th century. Take Bach, for
example. He transcribed the opening movement of the violin Partita
in E major into a symphonia for solo organ, strings, three trumpets,
tympany, and continuo for Cantata 29. I find it very stimulating to
go through the transcription process. It teaches you a lot about
18th century music.
LSM: How do you remain faithful to 18th
century arrangement principles?
When you transform a piece or when you give
it to another instrument, it acquires a different quality. In the
case of the Goldberg Variations, transcribing from keyboard to
strings means the new arrangement would call for different tempos.
You can play faster with a string orchestra than with a keyboard
because every instrument is playing one voice at a time. On the
other hand, sustaining notes on strings calls for a slower tempo. I
don't think tempos are immutable. They depend on the instrument,
just as the musical idiom is instrument-related. The medium
determines interpretation, to an extent. Therefore a transcription
is a new opus which shouldn't be compared with the original.
About half of the Goldberg Variations can be
transcribed almost note for note. When you have obvious 3 or 4-part
writing, all you have to do is give each voice to an instrument.
That's what Mozart did in arranging the Well-Tempered Clavier fugues
for string quartet. That's what Sitkovetsky did for half of the
variations, and my version is not too different. That's the easy
In other variations of the Goldberg, you
have basically two or three-part writing that is obvious almost
throughout, but at some point a voice is missing because in typical
keyboard writing you don't need separate voices all the time. In a
string transcription it would sound weird and unusual for one
instrument to disappear for 3,4 or 5 bars at a time. A transcribing
musician has to fill in the blanks just as Bach did when he rewrote
the violin concert as a harpsichord concerto. It's almost like
recomposing the music. You must be careful to tailor the style and
preserve the essence and inner balance of the piece. It is a
dangerous and stimulating process.
A third type of variation is so typical of
keyboard writing that you have to find different formulas to
transfer it to string orchestra. In some cases, what looks like
2-part writing is actually 3-part writing. When Gustav Leonhardt
transcribed the solo cello suites to harpsichord, he completed the
harmony and transformed the cello idiom to a keyboard idiom. It's
the reverse process with the Goldberg Variations, where typical
keyboard figures and motifs must be transformed into string form.
Bach did that too. For example, Variation No.14 of the Goldberg
Variations is typical keyboard writing. It is awkward to transfer it
to strings exactly as written. You end up having 3 or 4 instruments
playing the 2 voices, so some instruments disappear when others
appear, and often it doesn't make sense. Solving this problem takes
a lot of baroque music experience.
LSM: What are the weaknesses of the
When Bach starts to sound like a Paganini
caprice you've got a problem. Sitkovetsky sometimes uses a tessitura
that a baroque composer would not . You can't have cellos playing in
the violin register. Unlike the Sitkovetsky, my arrangement will use
a basso continuo [harpsichord] throughout.
LSM: Will the audience be hearing mostly
Labadie or Bach?
This is my first major transcription. I
started work on it in April, 1997. I've reworked some variations
several times and I'll probably keep making changes throughout
rehearsals, exactly as baroque composers did. Some variations
require the whole orchestra, and some need only 2 or 3 instruments.
Audiences will hear mostly Bach and a little Labadie. You can't keep
your personality totally out of the creative process.
Everyone knows and loves the Goldberg
Variations, so I'm taking a big risk rewriting and performing such a
favourite. But I think risk should be part of a musician's life, so
I gave it a shot. We'll see what it sounds like in September!
J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations (arr. Bernard
Labadie), works by C. Avision, F. Geminiani, Les Violons du Roy,
conductor: Bernard Labadie. September 26, 1997, Quebec City, Palais
Montcalm, 20h, (418) 670-9011. September 27, 1997, Montreal, Salle
Claude Champagne, 20h, (514) 844-2172.
Radio Canada will be
broadcasting the September 26, 8 p.m. performance live.
Characteristics of the baroque bow:
shorter € lighter (about 10g less than a modern bow) € very tapered
€ less horsehair € Because of its shape, the baroque bow does not
have an even sound: its heel plays hard while its tip is weaker.
Hence the difference in musical resonance: the baroque sound. ‹