Despite the Valletta International Baroque Festival only being in its second year, it has steered clear of many stereotype performances of Baroque music and has including some new arrangements of familiar works, performed specifically for the festival.

© Mario Mintoff/VIBF
© Mario Mintoff/VIBF
The concert held on 16 January in the church of All Souls Church provided another pleasant surprise: an arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations scored for violin, viola and double bass. There have been arrangements for string trios in the past but this performance using double bass was being given its world première at the festival.

Probably no great composer has been “arranged” more often than Bach. Whether it is the C major Prelude from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, which has another life as Gounod’s Ave Maria, or Jacques Loussier’s jazz piano trio arrangements of of his keyboard concertos, his music shines through, and endures, reaching wider audiences.

This arrangement was made and performed by the Macedonian bass player Gjorgji Cincievski, principle double bass with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. The violin was played by the French violinist, Nicolas Dautricourt on a magnificent violin by Sanctus Serafin (Venice, 1735). The viola part was performed by Pierre Henri Xuereb.

The opening Aria is first introduced by the violin, vibrant, full-voiced, very expressive, yet with a certain delicacy, with the viola picking up the theme. The theme is so beautiful that it sounds magical: Bach gives us a clue by calling it an Aria – it’s explicitly meant to be singable. The violin playing of Nicolas Dautricourt certainly fulfilled that requirement.

The violin’s voice was beautiful and was played with passion; the Serafin violin had a beautiful, warm tone and “sang” wonderfully in the slower variations.

The viola was always at the surface, and the double bass provided a solid foundation; initially providing the accompaniment but as the variations progress came more into its own.

There were virtuosic passages that utilized the whole compass of the double bass. Much use was made of the upper registers of the instrument, with some incredible leaps to the lower: a tour de force of virtuoso playing.

The variations each followed a very slight pause, just enough to catch one’s breath – without creating a full stop, but giving an anticipation of a forward-rolling feeling of agitation and delight. It was possible to hear, and to see, the layers of the counterpoint clearly. The slow variations were not rushed, giving air to the work.

Pizzicato effects were used very effectively in Variation 22. The great Variation 25 was performed with a throbbing pulse.

Staying true to the original keys and octave ranges, the arrangement was performed with vitality and expressiveness without overexuberance, together with a marvellous sense of style.

By using the double bass, it was possible to extend the bass part below that of the more conventional violoncello. The audience were impressed with the virtuosity of the performance given by Gjorgji Cincievski.

In his original version, Bach dedicated the Aria: “to music lovers for the benefit of their souls”. This performance was certainly performed in the spirit of Bach's dedication. From the reaction of the audience then I feel many souls benefited from this excellent arrangement and performance.