Monday, June 11, 2012

Open Goldberg Variations

I have tried to donate 1$ to the Open Goldberg Variations' kickstarter project way back when, only to discover that my Indian Visa debit card doesn't work too well on the Internet. Having failed to support it financially, I am trying to support it by a humble review.

You know that I am no music scholar, only a guy who likes good music. My leanings are with the Baroque style, with a liking for chamber orchestrae doing powerful music.

The Goldberg Variations are Baroque, and they are powerful music done by a single piano (some meant for two, but let us steer from semantics). They are 30 variations over the same tune (plus an extra one at the end), and they are no small task for a pianist to interpret. Now, an important thing to note here is that they are written in such a way that the musician has a large leeway to express their own style through Bach's score.

You know that I love Bach for some of his awe-inspiring Organ compositions, and very fine chamber orchestra compositions - the most famous being the Brandenburg Concertos. I would say that his compositions for piano and harpsichord have gone a bit under my radar. And I am glad that the Open Goldberg Variations came to point that out to me.

Despite being an important work in classical music, there was no freely available score and recording available, so Robert Douglass decided to change that. The consequence is that this recording is set to become the de facto yardstick for an interpretation of the work in our collective mind.

But it may become a yardstick for a better reason. Musically speaking, Kimiko Ishizaka does a great job to bring Bach's composition to life. This is a high-quality recording of a very good pianist playing well on a very good piano. What do I mean by that? Well, it is a studio recording, so you won't hear a guy coughing. Also, the execution is perfect - what you expect from the pros - with no missed notes and the like. But that's the baseline, right? What makes this special in any way?

That answer does not have words. It is a je ne sais quoi, a 'soul' to the interpretation that gives it some 'hmp'. It is the 'thing' that will distinguish the really good musicians from the truckloads of technically sound yet interchangeable musicians whose name you will only see mentioned on the programmes of the orchestras because they have to. You can see an example of that contrast in automatically generated music: Variation 10 generated vs. Ishizaka's rendering.

I especially enjoy the 3rd and 8th variations, maybe because of my bias in favour of higher tempo parts of the Baroque repertoire in general. The 10th variation makes me feel like stopping whatever I am doing and just listen to it. Variation 15 brought me a feeling of melancholy out of the blue. I felt the joy in the start of the 22nd variation and it brought me a smile. Only real music does that to people.

You can -and should- enjoy them right here right now:

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