13 WAYS of Looking at the Goldberg: Bach Reimagined; Lara Downes, solo piano; Tritone Records

Pianist Lara Downes first heard the Goldberg Variations on an LP “as a little girl sitting in my father’s big chair”, played by – who else? – Glenn Gould in his iconic 1955 recording, the same recording my parents had, with the expressive photographs of Gould on the album sleeve. She was, like Gould, like many of us, “transported” by the music, the twists and turns of Bach’s creative process, and Gould’s interpretation and realisation of it.

Inspired by the poem ’13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ by Wallace Stevens, ’13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg’ is, like the poem, an exercise in “perspectivism”, a “re-imagining”, for each piece makes a nod, sometimes obvious, sometimes more tenuous, to Bach’s original, while demonstrating both the permanence of Bach’s great Baroque work, and its ongoing relevance and fascination today. In 2004, thirteen composers were invited to compose thirteen new variations based on Bach’s original. They are not all classical composers, and they represent a diverse and varied group – as do their interpretations. Many share rhythmic, melodic and harmonic motifs with the original, but each is individual, a short stand-alone work.

Catch a phrase or two of some of these ‘reworkings’ and you could easily believe this was Bach’s own creation in their closeness to the original (Fred Lerdahl: Chasing Gold, William Bolcom: Yet Another Goldberg Variation, Ralf Gothoni: Variation on a Variation with Variation), while others bear more than a passing reference to the atonality of Hindemith, Boulez or Messiaen (Mischa Zupko: Ghost Variation, Derek Bermel: Kontraphunctus, Stanley Walden: Fantasy Variation). And just like Bach’s original, there are stately chorales and sprightly dances. This album is almost a palimpsest of Bach: an imaginative and sensitive layering of new thoughts over the original.

The clarity of Lara’s playing ties these separate pieces together with crisp articulation, tender sonorities and arching melodic lines. To accompany the thirteen variations, Lara Downes includes on the album Bach-inspired works by two great American composers, Dave Brubeck and Lukas Foss, a fitting tribute to Bach and the lasting inspiration of his music. The final track on the album is the sublime ‘Sarabande’ from the French Suite V, BWV 816, whose exquisite simplicity echoes the opening ‘Aria’ of the Goldberg Variations.

For more information, please visit Lara’s website. The album ’13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg’ is available to download via iTunes.

I am very grateful to Lara for giving me the opportunity to review this interesting and arresting album.

More on the Goldberg Variations here.

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

Mahan Esfahani captivated with a magical performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Cadogan Hall today, in the first Chamber Prom of the season, and the first ever solo harpsichord recital in the history of the Proms. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here

 

At lunchtime today, I eschewed Sunday lunch with the family, or shopping, which seemed to be what most people were doing, to see the new Glenn Gould biopic at Richmond Filmhouse. This delightful, small cinema, tucked down a side alley off the main drag, is part of the Curzon group, and tends to show art house, European, and less mainstream films. Which is good, because I like those types of films, and I doubt I would have had an opportunity to see the Glenn Gould film otherwise, since it is not on general release, being of somewhat ‘specialist’ interest.

Glenn Gould has always been part of my musical/pianistic landscape, along with Ashkenazy, Perahia, Barenboim and Brendel, for these were the artists my parents heard live in concert and on LP, and I remember seeing the photo of Gould on one of my father’s records, with his trademark cap and long coat. He is probably best remembered today for his extraordinary recordings of Bach, specifically the Goldberg Variations, which he recorded twice – first, when he was a young man (in 1955), and later, in 1981, a year before he died. The jury’s still out as to which version is “better”. I would argue that they are simply different: the later version is more thoughtful, and, in some places, just plain weird – that is, if you like your Bach served straight. What most people agree on, however, is that with the music of J S Bach, Gould reveals his true pianistic genius. Listen to him playing, and it is as if a whole choir is contained under his fingers as he directs all the different voices, giving just the right amount of emphasis to each one, so that we truly hear Bach’s intentions and “see”, through sound, the interior architecture of the music (something Murray Perahia also does).

Gould was also famously, or infamously eccentric, and it is probably his personal life and his eccentricities that remain perennially fascinating to fans, musicians and non-musos alike. When I was researching a novel some years ago, in which the principal character is a concert pianist, a young man just starting out on what promises to be a brilliant career, I read a number of books and biographies of Glenn Gould to try and understand what motivates someone to choose such a masochistic career, and what drives the pianist to spend hours and hours in self-imposed solitary confinement with only dead composers for companions. Gould’s obsessiveness, not just about his music, is perhaps more extreme than most, but I think all of us who are committed to the piano, whether as a professional or serious amateur, can understand, to a greater or lesser degree, what drove him to do what he did, and why.

In 2006, Bruno Monsaingeon’s film about Glenn Gould, ‘Hereafter’, came out on DVD. This was, in part, an attempt to get inside the mind of Gould, as an artist and a human being, but also focussed on people whose lives had been touched, in special ways, by Gould’s playing. Monsaingeon was a good friend of Gould’s for over 30 years – this is apparent in the film in the scenes of them working together. More a film about Gould’s relationship with the piano and his music than about his mental state, it is quirky and entertaining, constructed as it is in the manner of a documentary narrated by Gould himself.

‘Genius Within’ goes beyond Monsaingeon’s film to try and penetrate even further the mind of Gould, and so focusses more on his personal life and eccentricities: the gloves, scarf, hat and long coat, even in the height of summer; the repeated request not to have to shake hands for fear of damaging his fragile fingers; his extraordinary attention to detail when recording; his dislike of performing in public; his extreme hypochondria. Constructed from interviews with people who knew Gould, including the artist Cornelia Foss who left her husband to live with Gould for four years, taking her children with her, and interspersed with footage of him playing in the studio or the concert hall, or walking in his beloved Canadian countryside, this is a very intense, beautiful, detailed and moving portrait of a highly complex and profound musical personality. For the really serious musos and Gould fans, the film clips of him playing are fascinating: so much of what he did goes against what most of us are taught when we learn the piano, yet the sound he produced was remarkable and unique. For those who know little or nothing about Glenn Gould, this film is great introduction to his life, and will have you ordering his recordings and reading the biographies of him before you know it. It contains more unseen footage than Bruno Monsaingeon’s film, and is a true work of art in its own right.

Go and see it. And listen to Gould playing Bach….and Beethoven, and Brahms, and Hindemith……

………and if you can’t see it at the cinema, the DVD is released in the UK in March.

 

An article about Gould’s ‘finger tapping’ technique.

As the year draws to a close, I thought I would review my year in music:

Goldberg Variations, Simon Devine, Purcell Room, March: The perfect way to spend a sunny, early spring Sunday morning. Harpsichordist Simon Devine brought immense colour, elegance, depth and humour to Bach’s greatest keyboard work.

End of Course Concert, March: My first “proper” performance in 25 years, as part of my teacher’s end of course concert. I amazed myself by pulling off a thoughtful and melancholy rendering of Chopin’s Etude Op 25/7, which has now become my “party piece”! The exceptionally high-quality of the music was a great inspiration, as was the variety: Chopin, Gershwin, Bach, Kapustin.

The Jerusalem Quartet, Wigmore Hall, March: A lunchtime concert memorable for all the wrong reasons, a concert during which politics and angry protest invaded the hallowed space of the Wigmore Hall and forced everyone present to contemplate the question “should music be above politics?”. The Jerusalem Quartet played on, despite the frequent interruptions. A disturbing, eye-opening, and extraordinary event.

Elisabeth Leonskaja Schubert recital, Wigmore Hall, May: A wonderful lunchtime concert which included several of my favourite works (Impromptu in F minor D935, and Impromptu in A flat D899, played as an encore), and confirmed, once again, what a fine Schubert-player Leonskaja is.

Lucy’s Parham’s ‘Nocturne’ at Wigmore Hall, July: A delightful and very moving evening of words and music by and about Chopin. Parham’s playing left something to be desired: she is unnecessarily flamboyant, and lacks finesse and accuracy at times, but the overall experience was delightful. Sam West was so good that very soon into the evening I truly believed he was Chopin!

Courtney Pine at Hampton Open Air Pool, July: A picnic with friends to the accompaniment of jazz-legend Courtney Pine’s full-bodied and exciting music, in his own tribute to Sidney Bechet. The best part was shaking his hand as he toured the audience at the end of the concert.

Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’, Wigmore Hall, October: The first time I’d heard this monumental work played live and in its entirety. Deeply moving, searing, painful and beautiful, it has inspired me to learn some of Messiaen’s piano music, and has piqued my interest in 20th century music in general.

Goldfrapp, Hammersmith Apollo, November: A rarity for me, attending a pop concert, but nonetheless a great night out. Interesting and unusual music, beautifully performed and visually and aurally arresting.

Students’ Concert, December: A lovely, fun and very enjoyable afternoon of music-making by my own students. The event was a huge success and I will be using the same venue for my summer concert.

Elisabeth Leonskaja, Schumann and Schubert, Wigmore Hall, December: Another great performance by this monumental “old school” Russian pianist. She never fails to please and I am already looking forward to her next solo recital in the late spring.

Handel’s Messiah, English Chamber Orchestra with Raymond Leppard, Rodolfus Choir, Cadogan Hall, December: A really fine Messiah with the superb ECO, youth choir and soloists, all under the baton of Raymond Leppard, a conductor who I remember seeing many times as a child. A lovely start to the festive season.

I fear I may have omitted some concerts from earlier in the year, and will make an effort to keep a ‘concert diary’ next year so that I don’t forget what I’ve heard. If there are any sins of omission here, I am sure Sylvia will point them out for me!