Notes and Editorial Reviews
13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE GOLDBERGS: Bach Reimagined
Lara Downes (pn)
TRITONE 3 (61:07)
Prelude in D.
Plus 13 variations on the
LERDAHL, HIGDON, SHENG, FOSS, BERMEL, HERSCH, CURTIS-SMITH, WALDEN, RYAN BROWN, ZUPKO, DEL TREDICI, BOLCOM, GOTHÓNI
This certainly isn’t your father’s
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
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
Chorale and the Prelude in D—by Dave Brubeck and Lukas Foss.
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
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
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.
doesn’t sound anything like the
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
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
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.
by contrast, starts way up in the treble end of the keyboard, single notes meandering almost aimlessly. When chords do appear, they are played
the melody, in the highest range of the piano. It’s cute, but I don’t care for it very much. Mischa Zupko’s
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
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.
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
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
Works on This Recording
Ornament, for piano by Ryan Brown
Lara Downes (Piano)
Length: 3 Minutes 22 Secs.
My Goldberg, for piano by David Del Tredici
Lara Downes (Piano)
Length: 3 Minutes 54 Secs.
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