University of Nottingham: Concert pianist in radical reinterpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations

It’s one of the most sublime but daunting pieces of music ever written for a pianist to play but now J.S Bach’s seminal work, the Goldberg Variations, has been performed and recorded as never before.

This new and ground-breaking album is called Gold.Berg.Werk, to imply the ‘mining’ of the Goldberg aria and its 30 variations. It has been written by Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl as a radical reinterpretation of Bach’s original work of 1741 using both classical piano and the latest electro-acoustic technology in live performance.

The Goldberg Variations form a cornerstone of keyboard repertoire and Essl’s highly original interpretation reveals how well-known classical works can be transformed by new kinds of performance practice. The familiar themes, rhythms and harmonies are time-stretched, manipulated and played back using electro-acoustic technology, uniting Baroque and contemporary sounds in real time.

The composer has inserted electro-acoustic interludes that are generated live and spatialised using a small loudspeaker inside the piano with further loudspeakers behind the audience. The sound moves between these, and the order of the variations is changed giving a very fresh take on this famous piece by Bach. It means no two performances are the same due to the live generation of the electronic interludes.

International concert pianist and University of Nottingham music researcher Dr Xenia Pestova Bennett has worked with live electronic diffusion artist Ed Bennett to record the work, to be released by Ergodos on 12th November 2021.

Xenia said: “The very idea of tackling the Goldberg Variations, places an enormous psychological weight of tradition on any keyboard player brave or foolish enough to do so. It is a monumental undertaking for any keyboard player to perform. However, rather than presenting this work as a fixed artefact behind dusty museum glass, or trying to match existing interpretations, I find that it helps to view it as a living and evolving organism. Karlheinz Essl’s Gold.Berg.Werk, a new piece in its own right, takes Bach’s music as a point of departure and offers a fresh perspective.”

Composer Karlheinz Essl said: “Our new interpretation bridges the gap between the sound world of the Baroque era and the sonic reality of the 3rd millennium. My electronics are based on the harmonic progression of the fundamental Aria, from which I stripped all figurations and ornaments. The ‘reduced’ Aria was originally recorded using a string trio in a series of sound experiments. Using a computer programme, I started to improvise with this recorded material and found myself travelling through a microscope into the inner world of the sounds, allowing me to compress, stretch and stop the improvisation at liberty. It released the Aria from its temporal corset and adds a whole new level of ‘variations’ to Bach’s originals.”

Performances of Gold.Berg.Werk are taking place on 7th November at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin and on 18th November at The Mac in Belfast.

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