“13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg,” edited by Lara Downes (2011)

This collection assembles 13 contemporary composers’ variations on the Aria from the Goldberg Variations. It has gotten a fair amount of publicity on the internet, including Lara Downes’s fundraising drive. Yet there is very little criticism; the sequenza21 review is mainly positive. But this is a very uneven collection. The best pieces include Mischa Zupko’s expressive and dissonant “Ghost Variation”; Derek Bermel’s ferocious piece, which can’t seem to decide how to engage Bach (an entirely appropriate response); the weird conglomeration of Bach and Satie in David Del Tredici’s neo-romantic variation; Fred Lerdahl’s precise but monotonous staccato variation; and especially Lukas Foss’s “Goldmore Variation,” which is a strong and nuanced response to the Aria.

Other pieces are weak, or have the sorts of problems of influence that can be expected when the subject is one of the most famous pieces in Western music. C. Curtis-Smith’s piece is very Liszt-like; in Jennifer Higdon’s “Gilmore Variation,” the sequences (m. 9) are too simple, and the syncopated passages not complex enough (after Stravinsky’s precedent, Higdon’s piece should have been more challenging, more involved); Stanley Walden strangely calls his piece “cubist,” but that trope is vague, old-fashioned, and over-used; Bright Sheng’s piece combines sourly atonal passages and sweet tonal passages, which makes it seem as if he hasn’t thought how the two could combine to engage Bach more closely; William Bolcom’s and Ralf Gothóni’s variations are both, in different ways, helplessly close to Bach; and Fred Hersch’s “Melancholy Minuet” could have been written in the generation of Schumann. The collection is an excellent idea; it would be wonderful to try it again with a more coherent group of composers. Why not a “spectral” anthology, or a “new complexity” anthology?

Most of these pieces are intermediate in difficulty; a couple, like Lerdahl’s, are advanced — more or less the same difficulty as the harder Goldberg variations.

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