The Amati Q&A: The Gouldberg Variations?

“When there’s a conductor on the podium, you don’t necessarily like their ideas but you do what they tell you….” Ahead of the Britten Sinfonia’s next tour, we asked associate leader Thomas Gould about playing Bach’s keyboard masterpiece on a string orchestra, and what it’s really like to direct an orchestra from the violin

The Britten Sinfonia’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, arranged by Dmitry Sitkovetsky, is just out on harmonia mundi. To mark the launch, associate leader Thomas Gould directs them in a programme centred on this beautifully realised arrangement for strings. The concert also includes the London premiere of Hans Abrahamsen’s Double Concerto (2011) for violin and piano, with Gould and Alasdair Beatson (piano) as soloists, the world premiere of Tom Coult’s Matisse-inspired My Curves are Not Mad for string orchestra, commissioned by Britten Sinfonia with funds from the William Alwyn Foundation and conducted by Carlos del Cueto, and Baroque composer and violinist Locatelli’s Concerto Grosso Op.1 no.11 in C minor. 


Thomas Gould by Aga Tomaszek

Thomas Gould. Photo: Aga Tomaszek

It’s quite unusual to hear the Goldberg Variations as a string orchestra arrangement. Do you think Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s arrangement “works” well – and why?

It’s true that the other arrangement Dmitry Sitkovetsky made of the Goldbergs for string trio is much more commonly performed and recorded than this full strings version. The way he orchestrates the full strings version is very clever, constantly shifting between solo and tutti textures to create both intimacy and grandeur. It is also liberating to perform the Goldberg Variations away from a keyboard instrument as its recorded legacy by greats such as Glenn Gould inevitably places a huge burden of tradition and expectation on keyboard players interpreting it.

What is it like playing a double concerto for violin and piano and what are the the pros and cons of the mix? And why do you think there have been so few of these historically? What is Abrahamson’s piece like?

It is really a combination of the feeling of playing a sonata with piano and a concerto with orchestra. I love playing concertos for more than one instrument because there isn’t the same danger of feeling lonely up on the stage. Hans Abrahamsen’s music often has a playful and transparent quality that belies its very intricate and complex construction. The slow movement references Bach’s ‘Art of Fugue’, making a neat symmetry to our programme.

What are the big challenges of directing an orchestra from the violin? And the joys and pitfalls, perhaps?

The biggest challenge is rehearsing. When there’s a conductor on the podium, you don’t necessarily like their ideas but you do what they tell you. When you take away the conductor it encourages a much more creative exchange of ideas and more engaged playing, but that needs to be harnessed carefully otherwise it can lead to a free-for-all. It’s about finding the right balance, and doing it in a way that is respectful to everyone’s different ideas but at the same time efficient.


What violin do you play & where did you get it?

It’s a G B Guadagnini from 1782 that formerly belonged to a violinist in Germany, now retired.

How’s your jazz group, Man Overboard Quintet? And with your career encompassing so many  different musical activities, whatever else is coming up?

Man Overboard Quintet is gearing up for the release of our second album on Champs Hill Records, Down in the Deep Deep Blue, very soon. I also have my first album for Edition Classics coming out in May – it’s called Live in Riga and features the Beethoven Violin Concerto and Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending in a live concert performance with Sinfonietta Riga directed from the violin.


Here is Man Overboard Quintet performing ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ at the Vortex, Dalston:


Tour dates:

20 March – Milton Court Concert Hall, London

21 March – Theatre Royal, Norwich

22 March – Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden

Cremona Mondomusica - Sept 30th - Oct 1st 2016

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