The Goldberg Variations have long been a favourite of mine. I was introduced to this wonderful work through Glenn Gould’s 1980 recording, which is still my preferred interpretation. When I began working with Rosewood Consort I immediately saw a close match between the counterpoint of Bach’s music and the recorder. I therefore undertook the task of transcribing the work—originally written for harpsichord—for recorders. I first selected the movements most appropriate for the ensemble, then began the process of creating a set putting forward the great variety of talent in the group.
For this movement I chose to keep it as Bach wrote it: a piece for harpsichord alone featuring a simple yet highly decorated melody over a bass line that remains through the entire set of varaitions.
Two harpsichords share this movement while the recorders and gamba punctuate the rhythmic motives that characterize this variation.
The recorders now become the main instrument while one of the harpsichords supports the bass line for good figure.
The two harpsichords play a canon at the unison written one full bar apart over an ornamented version of the bass.
For the first time the recorders and viola da gamba play alone without harpsichord. This movement brings a sense of forcefulness to an otherwise lyrical piece of music.
All forces join for this lively canon at the second. Although only one measure apart, this canon feels much closer because of the 3/8 time signature.
This movement is a lovely gigue. Like the opening Aria, I chose to leave this movement as Bach wrote it—for solo harpsichord.
Like variation 2, the recorders take the spotlight while one of the harpsichords supports the bass line. This instrumentation allows the canon at the third to come through clearly with the alto recorders initiating the canon and the larger tenor recorders answering.
Continuing the pattern set earlier, this movement divides a four part fugue between the two harpsichords. The two instruments’ slightly different tonal colours allow for each voice to be clearly heard.
After the vigorous fugue, the recorders and gamba alone perform a lament-like reflective and almost sad canon at the fifth set in contrary motion. One voice goes down while the other answers going up.
The ensemble, sans harpsichords, performs this clever canon at the sixth this time written only one beat apart.
Similar to variation 1, the two harpsichords carry the original variation while the recorders “punctuate” the sixteenth note motive. As a complete contrast to variation 4, this movement resembles a very fine lace in a minuet-like dance.
For this canon at the seventh, the entirety of the recorders answers the two harpsichord playing in unison. It is the ultimate in ensemble playing while providing the most powerful contrast of this entire set of arrangements.
Immediately following the previous movement in minor key, this canon-like movement in major brings a ray of sunshine. Harpsichords and recorders double each other to bring a sense of dialogue and togetherness.
The two harpsichords exchange in this simple but beautiful canon at the ninth. The slight variation of tone between the two harpsichords enhances the dialogue between the two parts.
My favourite variation—the quodlibet—is both a display of Bach’s genius and of his sense of humour. He combines several popular melodies superimposing them to a harmonious work that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. After 29 variations, here is what Bach chose:
For this variation I chose to introduce each section with harpsichord alone before being joined by the entire ensemble one last time.
Aria da Capo
This arrangement of the Goldberg Variations began with one single harpsichord and finishes with the recorders and gamba alone—counterbalancing a highly musical work of art—at first, only four instruments provide us with an intimate setting of the aria. This small group is finally joined by the entire wind players to conclude this wonderful composition.