Karlheinz Essl: Gold.Berg.Werk

Monday 15 November 2021

It’s a mug’s game, really, messing with the classics. No matter what your intentions are, you will probably come across as a wannabe iconoclast or a toady. The need for your work to become a statement in itself is thrown into the shadow of a much more respected work. You choose to make your own work incapable of standing on its own merits, without it also needing to change the audience’s perception of a venerable classic. To succeed, your own work must walk a knife-edge between disrespectful and too respectful.

Karlheinz Essl’s Gold.Berg.Werk takes a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and inserts live electronic interludes. It has existed in several forms over the years, originating from his collaboration with a string trio playing an arrangement of the Bach. Essl describes his interventions as a confrontation and a liberation. This new version returns the work to keyboard, played by Xenia Pestova Bennett on piano, with Ed Bennett producing the live electronic spatialisation: a transducer has been placed inside the piano, so that the instrument’s acoustic resonances enhance the electronic sound while it is projected around the performance space. I missed the live performance last month and so was not able to hear how the electronics change from one rendition to the next, which may have helped my understanding of what is happening here.

Pestova Bennett plays a selection of twenty variations here, in groups of five bookended by the electronic interludes. The big problem here is that Essl’s interventions are occasional and ephemeral, such that for all their technical artistry, they are soon forgotten again once the Goldbergs resume. An addition of this type can be very effective in other media, such as architecture, where the presence of old and new persist in coexistence, but in this temporal scheme Essl sounds like he is politely interjecting from time to time to voice agreement with what has been said before modestly withdrawing again. It appears that Gold.Berg.Werk is to be considered as a work in toto, in which case the two composers’ elements share a very unequal partnership. Essl had marked out a particular selection of variations for his work, based on the intial string trio arrangement, and elements of the string playing modelled in the electronics persist here. In Pestova Bennett’s performance, she alternates between the canons and character variations, where Essl grouped them together.

It is perhaps best to hear this recording as Pestova Bennett’s take on Bach’s Goldbergs, even more than Essl’s. She seizes this opportunity to take on the work’s daunting reputation by interpreting it afresh, “as a living and¬†evolving organism”. In this incarnation she presents a nicely variegated set of variations, with lively contrasts in texture and expression from one to the next, emphasising Bach’s range of voices and manners, using the electronic sections to present the whole as a vast patchwork rather than a continuum. Ed Bennett’s work on spatialising the sound to open it up even more is best heard in the binaural recording, which is also available as a download.