Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Catalyst’s Bach/Gould Project blazes a trail for string quartets

By Heather Longley

Catalyst Quartet violinist Karla Donehew-Perez says the foursome wanted to make a splash with its debut recording.

“We wanted it to be a very significant project, something that really meant something to us and that also was a grand work … very special, difficult, challenging, but that made a statement,” she says.

So, in April 2015, the quartet released Bach/Gould Project, a crowd-funded album that features the musicians’ arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Canadian composer Glenn Gould’s String Quartet.

Catalyst is scheduled to perform the two works in concert September 17 at Penn State’s Esber Recital Hall.

Goldberg Variations, according to Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel, was written by request from a Russian ambassador suffering from insomnia. The diplomat wanted his aide, named Goldberg, to have something to perform for him during the man’s sleepless nights.

Gould, perhaps the most famous translator of Bach’s keyboard music, recorded a unique arrangement of the Goldberg Variations in the 1950s. Early in his career he also created String Quartet, months before recording the Bach selection.

Catalyst’s arrangement of the Goldberg Variations is unique. “There aren’t any that are really four-part string quartet versions. Ours is the first, so there’s no way to compare it to anyone else,” Donehew-Perez says.

“Quartets don’t get to play Bach,” she says. “But as a string player, you grew up playing Bach.  … It’s a part of your childhood as a string player, your youth, that you don’t get once you’re playing professionally. As a professional string quartet, there isn’t a Bach quartet, so getting to play Bach is really special.”

So what did the quartet learn while recording the Bach and Gould works that fall within six degrees of separation?

“It’s really cool to play something that Glenn Gould was actively working on while he was preparing for the Goldberg Variations. And although the piece is very rich and kind of in that Germanic tradition of Mahler and Strauss influence and things like that, you can definitely hear that there’s an obsession with counterpoint,” Donehew-Perez says.

“There is a direct influence between him and Bach in that sense,” he says. “And then on top of that, why wasn’t he writing a piano piece? Why was he writing for string quartet? That makes you wonder. It’s something you see a lot with the great chamber music composers like Brahms and Beethoven. The last works that they ever wrote were for string quartet. And I think just like the vehicle, sort of like a chorus … it really does have that perfect balance of voicing and sonorities, so there’s something about it that’s really special.”

Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.