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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa