Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s 1984 string-trio version of the Goldberg Variations is one of the great Bach transcriptions, and this superb, late-night performance, in Aldeburgh’s packed Parish Church, confirmed its place as a classic reimagining and a moving hommage. It was neatly set up by the first performance of Simon Holt’s Llanto (para las chumberas), Lament (for the prickly pears). The prickly pear cactus is a familiar sight in southern Spain and is being infected by the cochineal beetle. The cactus becomes covered in a white froth that rots it – the insect is killing its host. Holt’s innate lyricism beautifully exploits the oboe’s keening quality, vividly realised by Melinda Maxwell’s mournful, long-phrased playing. If Llanto evoked feelings of decay and loss, this would have been down to the oboe’s teasing, ambiguous relationship with the string trio.
As J. S. Bach’s thirty Variations unfolded, you couldn’t help marvel at the moments of illumination, the quasi-conversational rapport of the counterpoint and the trio’s range of colour and dynamics. The biggest difference between the transcription and the keyboard original is that the string-players control the tuning, which gives the sound a thrilling volatility and also extends into a much less dogmatic ensemble. The players’ sound didn’t flirt overtly with ‘period’ style and embraced anything from viol-consort intimacy to unabashed modern brilliance. Jane Atkins’s viola was often romantically full, Kate Gould (who, as cellist with the Leopold Trio, is part of a distinguished recording) acted both as anchor and chaperone to the violin and viola duos and was incredibly nimble and subtly assertive, and Clio Gould’s eloquent violin adapted with unfailing imagination to all the considerable demands. Occasionally you missed the tautness of some of the decorations and the flashy virtuosic blur of hands whizzing up and down a keyboard, but as a whole the performance worked magnificently, with all the repeats a long evening and a very special one.