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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 3, No. 1

Labadie Goes for the Goldberg

by Wah Keung Chan / September 1, 1997

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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 York.

LSM: Tell us about Les Violons du Roy.

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. Why?

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 Goldberg Variations.

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 part.

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 Sitkovetsky transcription?

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. ‹ Elisabeth Starenkyj

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