by Maggie Molloy
Johann Sebastian Bach was a master of musical variations—so much so that even now, nearly 300 years later, his works continue to inspire new interpretations, adaptations, and arrangements by musicians from around the globe.
Among Bach’s most famous and most frequently reimagined works is his “Goldberg Variations.” Originally composed in 1741 for harpsichord, the piece consists of an aria and 30 variations. Over the years, the “Goldberg Variations” have inspired countless diverse arrangements, ranging from saxophones and double bass to marimba, prepared piano, jazz trio, synthesizer, and even double-necked electric guitar.
But despite all of these imaginative reinterpretations of the classic Baroque work, no one has ever created a fully realized four-voice arrangement of the “Goldberg Variations”—until now.
The Catalyst Quartet recently released their debut album, “The Bach/Gould Project,” which features the group’s own unique arrangement of the “Goldberg Variations” for string quartet. And in addition to this 45-minute masterpiece, the album also explores Bach’s lasting influence by featuring a one-movement work written by a world-renowned interpreter of Bach’s keyboard music: Canadian pianist and composer Glenn Gould.
The Catalyst Quartet’s arrangement of the “Goldberg Variations” combines Bach’s carefully-crafted counterpoint with the warmth, resonance, and timeless elegance of a string quartet. Comprised of violinists Karla Donehew-Perez and Jessie Montgomery, violist Paul Laraia, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez, the quartet’s polyphonic clarity, rhythmic verve, and graceful phrasing breathe new life into Bach’s classic work.
The string quartet arrangement allows each voice to shine through more sweetly and more whimsically than in the harpsichord arrangement, while still maintaining the original work’s complex counterpoint and multifaceted formal structure. Furthermore, the melodic ornamentation, musical imitation, and motivic interplay between voices sparkle in the quartet arrangement, creating a gorgeous and multidimensional musical texture.
Bach’s music is famous for its dense textures, complex counterpoint, and intricate harmonic and motivic organization. In fact, his music is so intellectually rigorous that some musicians have made an entire career out of specializing in Bach musical interpretation—and Gould is among them.
Gould’s 1955 piano recording of the “Goldberg Variations” is among the most famous renditions of the influential work—in fact, the recording turned him into an overnight piano sensation. But what many people don’t know is that during the years in which Gould was preparing to record the “Variations,” he was also composing a new string quartet. Thus, the second half of “The Bach/Gould Project” features a Catalyst Quartet performance of Gould’s 1956 composition String Quartet Op. 1.
The 35-minute work is written as a single long movement divided into five sections—and while some of its contrapuntal richness may have been inspired by Bach, for the most part the composition is far from Baroque. The Expressionist melodrama and dense musical textures are at times reminiscent of early Schoenberg, though the piece’s rich harmonies and lush lyricism also have clear ties to late German Romantics such as Strauss and Wagner.
The piece is darkly sumptuous; a bold contrast to the polished charm of the “Goldberg Variations.” But the Catalyst Quartet pulls off the dramatic mood change seamlessly, capturing the stormy and tempestuous character through their carefully-balanced contrapuntal dialogue.
The String Quartet ends with an extended fugue-like coda, bringing the album full circle back to its Baroque beginnings. And while the two works may be musical worlds apart, the Catalyst Quartet’s performance of both the “Goldberg Variations” and Gould’s String Quartet are pure gold.