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13 Ways Of Looking At The Goldberg: Bach Reimagined

Release Date: 09/12/2011 
Label:  Tritone Records   Catalog #: 59140   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Fred LerdahlJennifer HigdonBright ShengDerek Bermel,   ... 
Performer:  Lara Downes
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 1 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE GOLDBERGS: Bach Reimagined Lara Downes (pn) TRITONE 3 (61:07)

BACH Goldberg Variations: Aria. French Suite: Sarabande. BACH-BRUBECK Chromatic Fantasy: Chorale. BACH-FOSS Prelude in D.


This certainly isn’t your father’s Goldberg Variations, nor, technically speaking, pure Bach at all, but the result of a 2004 commission by the Irving Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. At that time, 13 American composers were asked to write their re-imagining of the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. To the best of my knowledge, Lara Downes is the first pianist to record the complete set, and to them she has added two wonderful variations—of the Chromatic Fantasy Chorale and the Prelude in D—by Dave Brubeck and Lukas Foss.

Fred Lerdahl’s Chasing Goldberg is a playful exercise breaking the melody up into sparkling shards of 16th notes. It is tonal and almost, but not quite, in the Baroque style—close enough to at least be distantly related. Jennifer Higdon’s The Gilmore Variation uses a great many triplets within the meter of each bar, far more than most Baroque composers would have used, but again presents us with a sparkling and tonal take on the music. Playful rubato lags in the beat highlight the central section of the piece.

We then hear Bright Sheng’s Variation Fugato, bringing the tempo way down to the kind of slow pace one hears in Bach’s The Art of Fugue, yet at the same time introducing off-center harmonies and a distinctly bitonal sound and feel. The original melody is so broken up and reharmonized that it bears almost no resemblance to it. Lukas Foss gives us the Goldmore Variation, harmonized in close seconds at times, leaning into diminished chords when the harmony does open up. I enjoy this one because it has both an intellectual appeal and very obvious playfulness in its approach.

Derek Bermel’s Kontraphunktus doesn’t sound anything like the Goldberg aria, at least not to me. It’s a bitonal little waltz in repeated patterns that break up into shards and variations. Further in, the rhythms become more ostinato and less waltz-like as it rather stomps its way to a conclusion. Fred Hersch’s Melancholy Minuet is the Goldberg aria in paraphrase, using even more rubato and rallentando in the rhythm. C. Curtis-Smith serves up the Rube Goldberg Variation, which starts out with alternating bass and treble notes in an ominous minor key, then develops the original aria chordally, almost in romantic style. A walking bass line meanders along with the right hand reacting to whatever key it lands in (mostly minor). The bass line moves continually down and deeper in pitch while the treble moves slowly but surely up in reaction to it. Stanley Walden’s Fantasy Variation starts with crashing minor bass chords that almost sound like a delayed finale to the Curtis-Smith piece, then breaks into shards of treble notes before the ominous bass returns to slow things down and move into darker realms.

Ryan Brown’s Ornament, by contrast, starts way up in the treble end of the keyboard, single notes meandering almost aimlessly. When chords do appear, they are played above the melody, in the highest range of the piano. It’s cute, but I don’t care for it very much. Mischa Zupko’s Ghost Variation follows quickly, also slow-moving but in the bass range and very ambiguous harmonically. Eventually he moves up into the center of the keyboard, then to the upper range for a sparkling shower of notes that alternate with the weird, bitonal melody in the middle. David Del Tredici gives us My Goldberg, which turns out to be a pretty little waltz with a melancholy tune in somewhat ambiguous harmony. Despite its getting a bit knotty in the middle, it’s a welcome reprieve from the broken shards of the previous four variants.

William Bolcom’s Yet Another Goldberg Variation is another work in “almost Baroque” style, the almost in this case being the somewhat broken, loping rhythm rather than harmonic incongruity. Of course, broken, loping rhythms were part of some Baroque composers (particularly Buxtehude), but the jury is still out as to whether or not J. S. Bach really liked any of his music played in that style. (He was an admirer of Buxtehude and actually met him once.) Ralf Gothóni channels Gertrude Stein in Variation on Variation with Variation. This is the one piece that almost, but not quite, could be slipped into Bach’s original work and get by the unwary listener. There is very little that is out of character for Bach except, to my ears, richer harmonic chording in the underpinning than we usually got from Bach’s own very lean countermelodies (and a few quirky, rapid triplets in the recapitulation). Downes concludes her survey by repeating the original aria.

Brubeck’s Chorale from the Chromatic Fantasy is reharmonized in his trademark fusion of French classical and jazz sensibility. Brubeck’s music was from the beginning influenced harmonically by his teacher, Darius Milhaud, thus this recomposition may be heard as Bach filtered first through Milhaud and then through Brubeck. It is an extraordinarily beautiful piece with great repose, the chromatic nature of the music leading Brubeck to reharmonize almost every note within a bar, though in the middle section he gets a very lyrical melody going. Foss’s rewriting of the Prelude in D, by contrast, sounds almost old-fashioned, yet it imparts a wonderful feeling of calm.

Downes concludes the proceedings with Bach’s Sarabande from one of the French Suites. There is no question that she is a sensitive and well-skilled pianist, able to cope with not only the technical demands of each piece but its emotional and theoretical content as well. Recommended for those who enjoy odd excursions!

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Chasing Goldberg, for piano by Fred Lerdahl
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Length: 2 Minutes 8 Secs. 
The Gilmore Variation, for piano by Jennifer Higdon
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Length: 2 Minutes 12 Secs. 
Variation Fugato, for piano by Bright Sheng
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Length: 2 Minutes 48 Secs. 
Kontraphunktus, for piano by Derek Bermel
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Length: 2 Minutes 31 Secs. 
Melancholy Minuet, for piano by Fred Hersch
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Length: 3 Minutes 39 Secs. 
Rube Goldberg Variation, for piano by Curtis Curtis-Smith
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Length: 3 Minutes 8 Secs. 
Fantasy Variation, for piano by Stanley Walden
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Length: 2 Minutes 3 Secs. 
Ornament, for piano by Ryan Brown
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Length: 3 Minutes 22 Secs. 
Ghost Variation, for piano by Mischa Zupko
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Length: 3 Minutes 52 Secs. 
My Goldberg, for piano by David Del Tredici
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Length: 3 Minutes 54 Secs. 
Yet Another Goldberg Variation, for piano by William Bolcom
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Length: 2 Minutes 5 Secs. 
Variation on Variation with Variation, for piano by Ralf Gothóni
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Length: 3 Minutes 54 Secs. 
Chromatic Fantasy Sonata: Chorale by Dave Brubeck
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Modern 
Length: 6 Minutes 44 Secs. 
Goldmore Variation, for piano by Lukas Foss
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Length: 3 Minutes 2 Secs. 
Prelude for Piano in D major by Lukas Foss
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1951; USA 
Length: 3 Minutes 5 Secs. 
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988: Theme "Aria" by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1741-1742; Nuremberg, Germany 
Length: 4 Minutes 12 Secs. 
French Suite no 5 in G major, BWV 816: no 3, Sarabande by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Lara Downes (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1722 
Length: 4 Minutes 31 Secs. 

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