In introducing the US premiere of his orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Zankel Hall – in a concert presented as a part of the Orchestra of St Luke’s summer Bach Festival – principal conductor Bernard Labadie explained that the project was more speculative than revisionist.

The Orchestra of St Luke's
© Adam Stoltman

“It was common for all Baroque composers, including Bach, to borrow music from other composers and reuse it,” he said. “Why would a composer do that? Because the music was popular and they wanted to use it.

“The problem with Bach’s music is that it was not popular in the 18th century,” he continued. “But what if Bach’s music had been better known? For sure, contemporaries would have arranged his music. What if an 18th-century musician had arranged his Goldberg Variations for string orchestra? The idea is not to be absolutely faithful to the original, it’s to make the music sound appropriate to the instruments.”

With his modus operandi established, Labadie introduced the fifteen strings, harpsichord and lute of New York’s Orchestra of St Luke’s to perform his 1997 reworking (originally created for the Quebecois ensemble Les Violons du Roy) of Bach’s 1741 magnum opus.

The opening aria on lute, cello, violin and viola came as a bit of a shock, even to ears knowing something of what they were in for. It was beautiful – because how could it not be? – but courtly, lacking intimacy. It was chamber music not of the sleeping chamber (which is how we can’t help but imagine the Goldbergs, even if we know that the creation story of Bach’s masterpiece is a myth). This was parlor music, social music, perpetuated (to be fair) without promise of being an improvement.

Labadie’s arrangement is for a variety of mixed ensembles, rarely for the full orchestra (and even then, a fairly small one). It was a purely entertaining flexing of muscle by Labadie, showing that he could do it and then he could do it again. And do it he did. There might not have been strong reason for doing it but given the challenge, he rose to it.

Plenty of others have risen to such challenges in the past. The Goldbergs have been reworked endlessly. Orchestral arrangements go back at least a hundred years and there have been versions for string trio, guitar, harp, organ, synthesizer and countless others instrumentations. The Boston-based chamber orchestra A Far Cry has been performing a dramatic orchestration with pianist Simone Dinnerstein of late. And nearly twenty years ago, pianist Uri Caine gave the book a radical twist on a record that has to be heard to be appreciated.

But Labadie’s intent wasn’t as radical as many of his forebears; his is a faithful reimagining. As more instruments joined in, it came to feel strikingly close to the Brandenburgs, which is to suggest a certain achievement on Labadie’s part. The arrangement was altogether convincing as Bachmusik. The cello counterpoint with string bass continuo in the first variation was handled masterfully. Those two voices returned to the fore in the ninth with an exciting power. And in the 29th, lines moved fluidly, fluently, across the strings.

But despite the orchestra onstage, the most striking of the settings were three for violin and viola (Variations 11, 17 and 19) and a fourth for two violins (the 21st), each performed by different members of the ensemble. They were elegant and intelligent. Perhaps the arrangements for string duo should be Labadie’s next variation on the Goldbergs.