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.