Why would anyone want to transcribe the Goldberg Variations for the accordion? Denis Patković's recording is a pleasant surprise in that it offers several answers to this question. For a start, the accordion's two manuals allow for the observance of Bach's instructions for the harpsichord. Secondly, an accordion is endowed with stops, just like an organ, which is a great asset in a work so thoroughly pervaded with polyphony. Further adding to the quirkiness of this recording is the fact that the variations are interspersed with movements from Jukka Tiensuu's Erz, a set of short pieces for accordion commissioned especially for this recording.
One of the most striking features of Patković's accordion playing is the cleanliness of the articulation. The cringe prompted in many people by the use of 'Bach' and 'Accordion' in the same sentence is surely to do with the unpolished, richly over-toned sound we associate with folk-music accordion. Yet one can hardly believe their ears when listening to the opening Aria. Here Patković is deliberately lenient on rhythmic precision, but with a piece like the Aria, this is not a flaw, but adds to the sense of mid-air suspense of the melody.
The Aria also serves as an introduction to the main shortcomings of the accordion: namely, that it is registrally top-heavy—which is unsurprising, since it traditionally serves as a treble and accompaniment instrument. This is more than just a slight set-back, since the Goldberg Variations are famously based on a bass-line, rather than a treble melody. Thus in Variation 2 and 12, and in many of the canons, the polyphony in the mid-high register drowns out the pulse-giving bass completely, and in Variation 5, the brilliant melody leaps lose momentum because of the bass' lack of resonance.
It would be unfair, however, to let this problem detract too much from Patković's playing, which is superb and full of vigour. I particularly loved Variation 14, with its winning combination of capricious decoration and sharp rhythmic articulation. Variation 16 – a mini French Overture marking the beginning of the second half – worked a treat on the accordion because of the full sonority it evokes, and although Patkovićhad to sacrifice a little of his usual timbric cleanliness, the result paid off. Variation 23 was a feast of cross-range rippling scales in thirds and sixths which must have been a challenge on the two manuals, and the trills of Variation 28 were gorgeous, light as filigree.
A special note of merit goes to Jukka Tiensuu's Erz. It is rare to find genuine worth in one of the many works 'commenting' on the Goldberg Variations, but here is an exception. The fact that this work was written for a specific purpose, rather than as an intellectual exercise, surely accounts for its freshness. Erz, unlike the Bach, was written for the accordion by an accordionist, and it makes a point of showing off the instrument's potential by requiring effects and techniques which stand in neat contrast with Bach. Some of the initial movements, like 'Trick' and 'Desire' have got the rhythmic sway of Piazzolla, and 'Whim' makes a point of exploring the effect of sharp, quick figurations continuously being interrupted by silence, which contrasts nicely with the elegantly self-contained Variations. Tiensuu uses the accordion as a palette for startling sonorities, such as evocations of clusters in the accordion's mid-register and the contrast between the dark, brassy bass and piercing interjections of the high register in 'Debate'.
More importantly, Tiensuu and Bach fit together like a glove precisely because Tiensuu is not attempting here to implement Bach's discourse, but to create contrast at strategic points. Erz's movements often end in the same register, tempo and note as the following variation, thus providing a sense of continuity, but they also pick up on motivic splinters from all over the work, without any obvious ordering. This nonchalant approach to the staple of the music is fun, and nicely complementary to the lofty craft apparent in Bach's work.
While Patković may not have made a desperately original contribution to our knowledge and understanding of this most sacred of baroque masterpieces, it is useful to think of this recording as a rite of consecration of the accordion to art-music. I very much doubt that many of those approaching this disc are aware of the brilliance of articulation and wealth of timbres of which this most vilified of instruments is capable. Patković's musicianship and Tiensuu's remarkable inventiveness yield unconventional, but thoroughly worthy musical results.