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MUSIC REVIEW

String trio takes on Bach's 'Goldbergs'

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / January 21, 2009
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NATICK - The indie cellist Matt Haimovitz has a stellar classical pedigree but he enjoys playing Bach, Hendrix, and avant-garde new-music in spaces as far afield as a punk shrine in downtown Manhattan and a pizza parlor in Jackson, Miss. He particularly loves venues where the vibe is informal yet the atmosphere still allows for close listening.

So I'm sure he felt right at home in the converted brick firehouse at the Center for Arts in Natick, with its intimate jazz club feel. The venue seats an audience of 290 and is ideally suited for unstuffy chamber music. That's exactly what Haimovitz and two colleagues brought here on Sunday night, and a large crowd braved the winter weather to warm themselves by the crackling counterpoint of Bach's "Goldberg Variations," in an arrangement for string trio.

Before diving into the Bach, however, Haimovitz had a surprise up his sleeve. Speaking from the stage, he told the crowd that he had received a special request for Mozart's expansive Divertimento in E flat (K. 563). Would anyone mind if they added it to the program?

The crowd seemed delighted for the unscheduled addition, and Mozart's seldom performed work was given a solid reading with moments of intermittent brilliance, though at times it felt like more of a tentative run-through than a fully realized performance.

The trio has recorded the Mozart, but not as recently as it has the "Goldberg Variations," which was released last year on Haimovitz's Oxingale label. Bach's keyboard works often travel well in transcriptions for small groups of strings (this one was by Dmitri Sitkovetsky) as the individual voices receive newfound room to breathe. It was easy to admire the clarity and warm-toned virtuosity that Haimovitz, violinist Jonathan Crow, and violist Douglas McNabney brought to Sunday's account.

If the reading overall, not unlike the Mozart, had a slightly under-ripe quality, there were some delightful moments of surprise such as the sudden switch to a featherweight pizzicato for Variation XIX, or Haimovitz's explosive chord to sound the arrival of the majestic Variation XVI. Best of all was the driving, muscular playing that the group brought to the final variation. Here at last was an expressive freedom, a generos-ity of tone and an ensemble electricity that the entire performance could have benefited from.

Bach's opening Aria of course reappears at the very end of the epic journey through the entire set of variations, and it is always somehow comforting to return to its gentle tread. The trio on Sunday seemed to savor this sense of homecoming, making the theme sound at once tender and wistful. Think late Gould. Or think of T.S. Eliot's famous lines from "Little Gidding," as they apply here too: "And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time."

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

MATT HAIMOVITZ TRIO At: the Center for Arts in Natick, Sunday night

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