With Bach's 'Goldbergs,' Can Two Pianos Be Better Than One?

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Almost two decades ago, composer and now-retired Cambridge University professor Robin Holloway set about to recompose Bach’s Goldberg Variations. If a healthy dose of skepticism is in order, rightly so: how could one conceive of improving on a work like Goldberg, with its rich layers of performance history?

In the case of Holloway’s Gilded Goldbergs, which gets its New York premiere at Weill Hall on Tuesday by pianists Steven Ryan and Catherine Venable, the proof is in the process. Within the structure of the original variations, Holloway’s four-hand re-composition incorporates centuries of compositional techniques; re-composed over five years, it is truly a labor of love.

Gilded Goldbergs will be presented as part of the Dessoff Choir’s Midwinter Festival, "Refracted Bach." The festival's curatorial concept is "Bach’s prism," presenting works inspired by Bach, alongside works by composers that inspired Bach himself, like Palestrina. “[Bach] absorbed all of the European styles au courant in his lifetime, and synthesized them into his own inimitable style,” writes Dessoff Choir director Chris Shepard in the festival program.

Few people think of Bach as being influenced by his predecessors, but Renaissance-era polyphony, also known as stile antico, formed the basis for counterpoint with a systematic approach to dissonance and melodic lines. The structure of Bach’s Goldbergs -- its system of contrapuntal canons -- draws heavily, though inventively, on the compositional techniques of the Renaissance.

Holloway’s Gilded Goldbergs maintains the Goldbergs' original structure, even its canons, while adding compositional techniques from the past 200 years. “It’s a huge circular journey,” said Holloway in a recent phone interview. “And if you get the jokes, references, and play of canti you can get even more out of it.”

Gilded Goldbergs began when Holloway, playing through Bach's variations for pleasure, wanted an easier version. "Some are very difficult to play with just one person at the piano,” said Holloway. In 1992, he began transcribing them for four hands. A busy professor, he would work out a few each summer and not necessarily in Bach’s order. “It seemed like a limited aim just to get a little bit of clarity,” said Holloway, who soon strayed from straight transcription. “The changes were mainly simple and close to the original, consisting in different ways of shifting the emphases, by games of proportion, mode, tonal perspective."

Friends and colleagues gave Holloway "a lot of encouragement to be more radical, more daring, more extreme." So the composer went about changing one variation's character from brilliant to dreamy, while paying tribute to Brahms and Schubert. In the 17th variation he hints at the sound world of Bartok and Ligeti. His re-imagining of the opening aria began “almost back to straight transcription, but opened out to make a dialogue between the two players, suggestive of the mutual suspicious and eventual gracious accord between an archaic clavichord and a modern grand.”

A recording in 2003 received largely favorable reviews. "If the result comes closer to Busoni's Bach transcriptions than to any other models, the eclectic flavour is very much Holloway's own," wrote critic Andrew Clements in the Guardian.

Holloway admits feelings of guilt and moral uncertainty over his process, but he was spurred over the five-year period by colleagues and friends who would enjoy playing through his re-workings. "Despite doing what I was doing with evident brio I felt extremely tentative, diffident, ashamed. Fortunately, plenty of friends, colleagues and pupils around to try things out the moment they were sketched helped assuage such angst.”