In 2000, Uri Caine's bold transformation of Bach's Goldberg Variations into a vibrant encyclopedia of styles blew welcome raspberries into complacent ears.

On Friday, accompanied by the New Zealand String Quartet, and compressing his original 70 variations into just over 20, the American pianist failed to capture the thrill of 16 years ago.

Early on, Caine's Rachmaninov-styled theme swooned gracefully, and the penultimate tango proved the crowd-pleaser, even without the accordion of the original.

Between them, one was too often aware of scruffy string playing, especially in hurtling passages originally intended for keyboard. Caine threaded his sometimes mordant descants around the NZSQ, as well as striking out with solos in his own amalgam of rock, stride and gospel idioms.


With this Bachian salute taking just under an hour, and the first half of the concert the same, the evening was too long. The boom 'n' thud of John Grant's band next door intruded on the final statement of Bach's original tune.

Perhaps it was a case of variation overload; before interval, the musicians gave us the title movement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet and the Finale from Beethoven's Opus 74.

Neither received the polish the NZSQ is capable of, and Caine's solo salute to Schubert, bringing together Scarlatti and Jelly Roll Morton under a klezmer moon, fell prone to occasional riff-spinning during its 14 long minutes.

Beethoven fared better, with a clever interweaving of the original and Caine's musical machinations.

Publicity had led us to believe there would be two samplings of Caine's own music, but there was only one. The first of two pieces from his Jagged Edges, featuring cantorial piano chants against astringent string textures, made one wish for more.

What: Uri Caine & the New Zealand String Quartet

Where: Town Hall Concert Chamber