The Northwest Bach Festival, newly invigorated and reconfigured by its dynamic artistic director, Zuill Bailey, is to be thanked for giving Spokane a chance to hear the Catalyst Quartet in a series of concerts that concluded Sunday afternoon at St. John’s Cathedral.
The centerpiece of the afternoon’s Bach/Gould Project concert was an arrangement by the quartet (Karla Donehew-Perez and Jessie Montgomery, violins, Paul Larais, viola, and Karlos Rodriguez, cello) of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
The immensely difficult task of creating an effective transcription for strings of Bach’s famous keyboard work was inspired by the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, whose status as one of the most important musicians of the 20th century began with the 1956 release of his recording of the Goldberg Variations.
Their admiration for Gould led the quartet to seek out the music to his only published composition, the String Quartet Op. 1, which formed the second work on Sunday’s program.
Members of the large audience began arriving early, while the quartet was still warming up, so as to assure themselves of a good seat – though, thanks to its superb acoustics, there is not a bad seat in the church. Chatting among themselves, audience members gradually became aware that all the members of the quartet had stopped playing except for the cellist, who had started playing something by Bach, and playing it very well.
When they finally turned their eyes to the stage, they saw that the player was Bailey, who had launched into a surprise “Flash Bach” performance of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. Since it was not part of the formal program, I will say little about it here, other than to remark that if the world of music holds any pleasure greater than hearing Zuill Bailey play Bach, I have yet to find it.
The playing of the Catalyst Quartet was also a continual source of pleasure. Careful to keep within the bounds of string playing appropriate to 18th-century music, they nonetheless succeeded in revealing the wealth of wit and pathos that lies in nearly every measure of Bach’s great work. All four players employed light pressure on the string and used vibrato as Bach would have expected: as an occasional ornament, rather than a constant means of tone production. The result was a sweet, airy sound, but one capable of many shades of expression.
In the Gould String Quartet, the group’s sound darkened considerably, in keeping with the stylistic language of the work. Early in his career, Gould was deeply involved in the music of the Second Viennese School of composers – Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, among others. These are the influences most noticeable in his String Quartet, and account for its dominant tone of brooding, super-heated emotion. Catalyst responded by digging into their strings more deeply and producing tone colors that would have been out of place in the Bach.
The result for this listener, who knew the piece only through a tense, wiry recording of it made under Gould’s supervision in 1960, was to enhance its stature substantially, and to create a desire to know it better.
The question of evaluating the transcription of the Goldberg Variations is a thorny one. Suffice it to say there are both considerable benefits and serious losses in transposing material intended for one person to play on the harpsichord to four people playing string instruments. The chief benefit is in a vastly increased range of expression. The chief detriment is in making it more difficult to perceive the integrity of the piece’s structure, which is its greatest glory.
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