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The Art of Transcription - JS Bach arrangements for String Trio by Dmitry Sitkovetsky



When I first wrote my transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for String Trio, in 1984, it was both a labour of love and an obsession with the 1981 Glenn Gould recording. For two months I probably had the time of my life, musically speaking, being in the constant company of Johann Sebastian Bach and Glenn Gould.

Generally, at that time, transcriptions were out of fashion and I recall that my own colleagues and managers were sceptical about such an audacious idea.

Since then my transcriptions have been played all over the world, and moreover they have opened the floodgates of new interpretive possibilities for the piece which have included solo harp, wind instruments of all kinds, saxophone quartets, Renaissance viols and even a fascinating concoction of Uri Caine, among many others.

By the time 2009 arrived I felt that this was the right moment to re-visit and somewhat re-examine my original transcription. It was 25 years after the piece was first transcribed, I had performed it many times and heard different adaptations of it, so I felt the need to return to a simpler version with hardly any repeats at all.

I have made some changes in orchestration, probably influenced by my String Orchestra transcription of 1992, but most of all I tried to inject some fresh, youthful energy to propel the piece from the beginning to end. As a result there was still room left for my old/new friends, 15 Sinfonias, which have always been in my mind to be played and recorded, and this was a welcome bonus for me and my talented young colleagues, Yuri Zhislin and Luigi Piovano.

I hope listeners will share in my life-long journey through the Goldberg Variations and my love of the music, indeed in the very first publication of the Variations, in 1742, J. S. Bach states that the spirit of the piece is “for the enjoyment of music lovers”.

Dmitry Sitkovetsky

The Art of Transcription - JS Bach arrangements for String Trio by Dmitry Sitkovetsky


“Dmitry Sitkovetsky began work on a string trio arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1984, while under the spell of Glenn Gould’s revelatory 1981 recording of the keyboard original. Describing it as ‘a labour of love’, he was surprised to find it soon being played all over the world. Now, in revisiting the score, he has removed most of the repeats and ‘injected some fresh, youthful energy’, resulting in a score lasting little more than 47 minutes, compared to the 70 or so of the original keyboard work. Admittedly we have moved some distance from the original score, though I would imagine its length and content will fit more readily into a string trio concert programme, and despite a personal aversion to such wholesale changes, the result is attractive. That reduction in length leaves room on the disc for Sitkovetsky’s likeable adaptation of the 15 three-part keyboard Inventions. The trio, also including Sitkovetsky’s outstanding Russian compatriot Yuri Zhislin on the viola and the Italian cellist Luigi Piovano, displays admirable technical precision throughout. Well-judged balance between instruments yields much internal clarity. Tempos are well chosen, and if the players are a little short of Baroque period credentials, they produce a crisp tone with little vibrato, and offer such an abundance of riches that one readily forgets such reservations.” David Denton, The Strad

MusicWeb Record of the Year - One of the most beloved musical works ever written, arranged with such affection and skill that the result sounds in no way inferior to the original, and performed with authority and passion. This is music of a kind that can bring tears of happiness to one's eyes. And an arrangement that should enter textbooks. Oleg Ledeniov, MusicWeb-International, December 2012

"In the booklet Sitkovestky tells the story the arrangements. To this Calum MacDonald supplements an as usual excellent and extensive musical analysis. All in all, on this disc we meet two glorious new Bach works for string trio. I cannot imagine more gripping accounts. Everything in this recording presents as a lasting work of art. Glorious. Gripping. Irresistible." Oleg Ledeniov,

Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s arrangement of the Goldberg Variations for string orchestra (Nonesuch 79341-2) is one of my “desert island” discs. The lightness, freshness and elation of the performance by the NES Chamber Orchestra are irresistible.

It all starts from the Aria: vibrant, full-voiced, very expressive yet with a certain “white” delicacy. The variations follow without pauses, which creates a forward-rolling feeling of agitation and delight. All the layers of the counterpoint are heard crystal clear. The slow variations are not rushed, and get all the necessary air to breathe. The great Variation 25 has a throbbing pulse: no philosophy here, but very personal sentiments.

The violin’s voice is beautiful, the faithful viola is always at the surface, and the cello provides a solid, affluent foundation. Often the sound has orchestral weight and fullness. The arranger applies pizzicato and other effects wisely and effectively; everything is stylish and never crosses the line of good taste. The acoustics are very spacious, the sound is palpable and the music seems clad in bright gold - a true celebration!

The 15 Sinfonias are on the same level as the Goldbergs, with enthusiastic vigour, expressiveness and depth, while staying low-cholesterol. These are little polyphonic gems, and in the trio’s hands all voices are heard clearly yet do not get separated in the sonic space – a true ensemble effect.

The music provides a rainbow of moods, and the performers colour these works differently, finding the right temperature for each. They work well together as a set. The performance is energetic yet not rushed. The slow numbers breathe and sing. Like the Goldbergs, this is music that grabs the attention; every moment is admirable. A certain melodic closeness to Bach’s violin Sonatas and Partitas only confirms how natural this arrangement sounds. Again, the recording quality is excellent; the string lines appear like bright electric threads over black velvet.

In both the Variations and the Sinfonias, moving from the “fading” piano sound to the “steady” string voice has a definite advantage in long notes. The music may lose the fragility and bravura of the piano sound, but instead it becomes more singing. This is good for some pieces, whose singing melodies now sound more natural. After hearing it, one may think that it was the clavier version that was the arrangement.

In the booklet Sitkovetsky tells the story the arrangements. To this Calum MacDonald supplements an as usual excellent and extensive musical analysis. All in all, on this disc we meet two glorious new Bach works for string trio. I cannot imagine more gripping accounts. Everything in this recording presents as a lasting work of art. Oleg Ledeniov,, November 2012

“Inspired by the 1981 Glenn Gould recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations Russian violinist and musical multi-talent Dmitry Sitkovetsky first transcribed Bach’s masterpiece for string trio in 1984. There followed a version for string orchestra that has been performed worldwide. Sitkovetsky recently revised “his” Goldberg Variations. He also worked on transcriptions of Bach’s 15 Sinfonias BWV 787 – 801… The playing is magnificent. Sitkovetsky, Zhislin und Piovano form a well-balanced trio and the instruments blend perfectly… The lush, luxurious string sound certainly opens up new dimensions for the listener…” Wiebke Kuester,

"J S Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations is the last of a series of keyboard music works that the composer published under the title of Clavierübung. Many people consider this the most serious and challenging composition that has ever been written for harpsichord. Based on a single bass theme, the variations prove Bach’s profound understanding of many musical styles as well as his exceptional performing technique. This largest of all clavier pieces encapsulates the whole history of Baroque variation, as Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations later did for the Classical period. Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, Dmitry Sitkovetsky grew up in Moscow, studying at the Moscow Conservatory. After emigrating in 1977, he studied at the Juilliard School in New York and now lives in London and enjoys an international career as violinist, conductor, arranger, chamber musician and festival director. He has transcribed more than 40 works mostly for string orchestra by Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Dohnányi, Bartók, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Schnittke. His original transcription of The Goldbergs was written in 1984, inspired by the famous 1981 Glen Gould recording. A version for string orchestra is equally popular and these transcriptions have been played all over the world. Sitkovetsky revised his trio transcription in 2009 and this recording by Dmitry Sitkovetsky (violin) with Yuri Zhislin (viola) and Luigi Piovano (cello) features that simpler version with fewer repeats. Some changes in the orchestration have led to an injection of youthful energy throughout the piece. The 15 sinfonias, also brilliantly arranged, complete a programme of beautifully played music. Dmitry Sitkovetsky will be giving a lecture at Kings Place, London on 15th September, entitled ‘Bach Goldberg Variations – The Art of Transcription’. On the same day, he also delivers a lecture entitled ‘Stravinsky: A Soldier’s Tale’ in which he will discuss the thoughts and processes behind his art of transcription." -

'This recording, with violist Yuri Zhislin and cellist Luigi Piovano, is spellbinding and beautifully persuasive.' Michael Tumelt, Glasgow Herald, Sept 2012