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Friday, March 30, 2012

Lara Downes, 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg: Bach Reimagined

The idea that there is nothing new under the sun is an old one. But even the sun changes. We have been reminded of that recently by periods of intense solar storm, sun spots and a contrasting period when there seemed to be no solar flareups whatsoever. So even the sun becomes new every day as it gradually grows older, and what's under it cannot and will not stand still whether we would wish it or not. The idea of the old making itself new is brought home musically in pianist Lara Downes' recording 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg: Bach Reimagined (Tritone Records).

The idea was to take Bach's Aria from the Goldberg Variations and commission 13 composers to write a short piano work that transforms, comments and reacts in some way to the original. These 13 variations on variations, so to speak, were then performed by Ms. Downes alongside the Aria, giving us a new extension, a reimagination of Bach.

The Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival commissioned the works in 2004 and Lara Downes gives us here the world premiere recording of them. It's a rather brilliant idea. Happily nothing is lost between the original idea, its fruition in the works and this performance.

The composers are a goodly assortment of individuals working in the full spectrum of styles available on the contemporary scene, as well-tempered by the influence of Bach and his Aria. Some composers are known for reimagining baroque pieces and other pre-modern works. So we have the very logical choices of Lukas Foss and William Bolcom, for example. Then we also have the very familiar names of Jennifer Higdon, Fred Hersch (from the improvisatory jazz camp), and David Del Tredeci. Still further we have composers whose names are not overly familiar to me. The end result is a most convincing flight of 13 musical imaginations over the familiar terrain. Some stay closer to the thematic and/or harmonic aspects of the Aria than others. There is represented a rather dramatically contrasting myriad of styles that make up modernity today. Their hobnobbing in close quarters with Bach's Aria as the conversational topic makes for exhilarating listening. The sequence begins and ends with a statement of Bach's theme variation to better set off the various paths away from his musical treatment, and back again, so to say.

To round off the program Ms. Downes plays two modern pieces that relate to Bach as well, Dave Brubeck's Chorale from his Chromatic Fantasy Suite and Lukus Foss's Prelude in D. Finally Lara concludes the program with Bach's Saraband from the French Suite V.

Ms. Downes handles the disparate variational buffet with poetic grace and respectful hommage-ination. It's a fine performance of a very attractive program. There is much to re-hear, to digest, and I suspect I will be doing that for many years to come! Very much recommended.

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