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Johann Gottlieb GOLDBERG (1727 - 1756): "Complete Trio Sonatas"

Ludus Instrumentalis

rec: Sept 2020, Cologne, WDR (Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal)
Ricercar - RIC 426 (© 2021) (69'57")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Prelude and fugue in f minor (DürG 5) (transposed to g minor; transcription for two violins and cello); Sonata in C (DürG 13); Sonata in g minor (DürG 12) (version for harpsichord and violin); Sonata in a minor (DürG 11); Sonata in B flat (DürG 10); Sonata a 4 in c minor (DürG 14)

Evgeny Sviridov, Anna Dmitrieva, violin; Corina Golomoz, viola; Davit Melkonyan, cello; Liza Solovey, theorbo; Stanislav Gres, harpsichord

The name of Johann Gottlieb Goldberg is inextricably connected to the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach, one of his most frequently-performed and frequently-recorded keyboard works. It is he who is said to have played them for his patron, Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, the Russian embassador to Dresden from 1733 to 1745. According to Bach's first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, the Count had commissioned Bach to write this cycle of variations, which may cheer him up during his sleepless nights. This story is often told and repeated, including in the liner-notes to the recording under review here. However, there are serious doubts about its authenticity. One of the main Bach biographers of our time, Christoph Wolff, believes that Bach had intended this work from the onset as part of his cycle with the title of Clavier-Übung.

The suggestion that Goldberg was the one who played these pieces, either for the Count or elsewhere, is probably more reliable, as by all accounts he was a real keyboard virtuoso from a young age. Unfortunately, not that much is known about his life, and the allegation that he was a pupil of Bach in Leipzig is not confirmed. It was Bach's eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, who called Goldberg his pupil, and that seems far more likely. Due to his early death, Goldberg's extant oeuvre is very small. It includes two cantatas, four trio sonatas, a sonata in four parts, two preludes and fugues and 24 polonaises for harpsichord. Two sonatas for flute, violin and basso continuo are lost as are chorale preludes for organ.

Goldberg's instrumental works may well confirm that Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was his teacher, as he seems to move between the various stylistic fashions of his time, just like Bach's eldest son. The Sonata in C is very reminiscent of the old Bach, and it is understandable that it was included in Schmieder catalogue, even though several manuscripts bear the name of Goldberg as its composer. Evgeny Sviridov and Davitt Melkonyan, in their liner-notes, point out that the subject of the fugal second movement is almost identical to the theme of the last aria in Bach's cantata BWV 54. The Sonata in a minor is a perfect example of a work that pays tribute to the different fashions of the time. The opening movement is written in the galant idiom, whereas the second movement is a three-part fugue. The last movement is a specimen of the Sturm und Drang and includes some notable harmonic progressions. In the Sonata in B flat Goldberg goes some steps further. It ends with a ciacona, which is harmonically very unsettling, "to the point that the listener can lose his sense of key" (booklet). These three sonatas have the traditional four-movement structure. That is different with the Sonata in g minor, which is in three movements in the order that was fashionable in Berlin in the mid-18th century: adagio, allegro, tempo di menuetto. It is one of two trio sonatas that also exist in versions for keyboard and violin. This latter version is played here.

One of the preludes and fugues for harpsichord is included here in a transcription for two violins and cello. In this work "we can appreciate why Goldberg's music seems to be close to Bach's: the music of both composers is not conceived strictly for specific instruments, being a type of absolute music that can just be as easily arranged for different instruments", according to Sviridov and Melkonyan. As an example they mention Bach's Goldberg Variations, which can today be heard in performances with string instruments. I politely disagree. In performances I have heard not every variation comes off convincingly, and the fact that a piece works well in another scoring does not indicate that it is not idiomatically and specifically written for a particular instrument. Bach's organ works are undoubtedly written for the organ, but due to their polyphonic nature many of them are very well suited to be played by a consort of recorders, for instance. That said, this transcription certainly works well, and is a nice addition to this programme, which then ends with the only remaining chamber music work, the Sonata in c minor for two violins, viola and basso continuo, which is probably the most 'old-fashioned' piece from Goldberg's pen. It ends with a lively giga.

In this movement the players show their perfect sense of rhythm, which they also demonstrate in the other items. The ensemble has its roots in Saint Petersburg, but is now based in Cologne. Its playing is in unmistakable German style, and reminds me of the former ensemble Musica antiqua Köln. Among its features are a sharp articulation and strong dynamic accents, emphasizing the difference between 'good' and 'bad' notes. Its choice of tempi points out the contrasts between the various movements. These performances are rhetorical and gestural, exactly the way I like German baroque music to be performed.

There is just one issue: in the Sonata in g minor the balance between the violin and the harpsichord is less than ideal, as the violin overshadows the harpsichord. The latter should have had more presence.

That does not compromise in any way my appreciation of this disc. It is wonderful that we have here Goldberg's complete output for instrumental ensemble, and that it is performed in such an engaging and creative manner.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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