13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg (CD review)

Bach Reimagined. Lara Downes, solo piano. Tritone Records.

German composer and organist Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) published his Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, in 1741 as an aria and thirty elaborations on the theme for harpsichord. The present album attempts to do Bach one better by offering variations on the Aria by thirteen of today's leading musicians. Whether you think they did any better than Bach did, you'll have to decide for yourself as American pianist Lara Downes plays them in this world-premiere recording from Tritone Records.

The Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival commissioned these reimaginings of the Goldbergs in 2004, the thirteen composers including Fred Lerdahl, Bright Sheng, Lukas Foss, Derek Bermel, Fred Hersch, C. Curtis-Smith, Stanley Walden, Ryan Brown, Mischa Zupko, David del Tredici, William Bolcom, Ralf Gothoni, and Pulitzer-Prize winner Jennifer Higdon. Ms. Downes's own inspiration, as she recounts it, was the 1955 recording of the Goldbergs by the eccentric-genius pianist Glenn Gould, so she's well aware of what others have done with the piece.

The present composers come at the Goldberg from all directions, some of them sounding a lot like the composer himself, some of them clearly jazz influenced, some of them modern and atonal, some of them just a tad whimsical. There's a little something for everybody here, with Ms. Downes playing each of them with equally loving care.

For instance, the program begins with the Bach Aria itself, which I liked best of all, Ms. Downes's playing sensitive and moving. Next up, Fred Lerdahl's restructuring bears little resemblance to the original, and it's happy and bouncy. Jennifer Higdon takes things even faster, yet it's still playful. Bright Sheng prefers a slower, almost spookier attack, making a nice contrast with the sprightliness of what went before. And Lukas Foss gives us a delicate approach, which seems closer to Bach with a little Debussy thrown in.

Derek Bermel updates the piece to the twenty-first century in the imaginatively titled Kontraphunktus, perhaps a play on "contrapunctus," Latin for counterpoint; that's followed by a lyrically flowing version by Fred Hersch. The cutely designated Rube Goldberg Variation by C. Curtis-Smith is as clever as its name. Then Stanley Walden's account comes crashing down on us from another plane altogether.

As the program alternates slower, faster, louder, and softer variations, we next get Ryan Brown's Ornament, a piece notable for the apparent simplicity of its progression and Ms. Downes's responsive handling of it. After that is Mischa Zupko's turn, who gives us a dark, heavy treatment; David del Tredici with a wispy, romantic turn; William Bolcom with a felicitous one; Ralf Gothoni with a faux-baroque ornamentation; and finally a reprise of the original. It's quite a fascinating collection, actually, one we have Ms. Downes to thank for.

The album ends with three favorites of Ms. Downes: Dave Brubeck's Chorale, from his Chromatic Fantasy Sonata; Lukas Foss's Prelude in D; and J.S. Bach's Sarabande, from his French Suite V, BWV 816. Of the final three, it's still the music of Bach that fills me with the most joy, even if there is no denying the appeal of the more-modern material.

Recorded at Patrych Sound Studios, the Bronx, New York, in 2011, the piano sound is gentle and smooth, a bit reverberant, with good body and impact. The engineers miked it at a moderate distance to provide some studio ambience but not so distant as to obscure detail. More important, it doesn't stretch the piano across one's living room.

Two minor, nonmusical annoyances, though: First, the packaging is one of those Digipaks that unfolds into four sections like a road map, making it cumbersome to handle and read. Second, the disc case lists the track timings in a font so small and a color so faint against a dark background, one can hardly read them.  As I say, minor quibbles.


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