Karlheinz Essl

Gold.Berg.Werk

Reviews on the CD release


Karlheinz Essl: CD Gold.Berg.Werk


Another approach is adopted in the Austrian composer's Karlheinz Essl's Gold.Berg.Werk (Preiser PR 90753), which alternates original Bach, performed by the Orpheus String Trio, and his live electronic ‘interpretation’, composed at the request of the same trio. Essl's note explains his initial reluctance to interfere unnecessarily with the Bach, his subsequent discovery of a way to go forward, building on the structure of the Goldberg Variations’ Aria, resulting in a new formal organization in which the instrumental variations are grouped together and separated by an electronic section.

The result is enormously impressive: Essl takes Bach's material as played by the strings and stretches it, opens it out, and extends the harmonic spectrum through the use of overtones, which results in music that is not only a foil for that of the older composer, but is in itself internally consistent and often of great beauty.

Ivan Moody: Mind the Crossing
in: Early Music, Vol. 37, Issue 4 (Nov 2009)



Bach in zeitgenössischem Gewand (Stefan Drees)
Goldberg-Variationen von J. S. Bach für Streichtrio und Live-Elektronik von Karlheinz Essl
in: klassik.com (22 Aug 2008)
Reprint: DIE TONKUNST, Oktober 2008, Nr. 4, Jg. 2 (2008), ISSN: 1863-3536

  Interpretation: 
Klangqualität: 
Repertoirewert: 
Booklet: 



Bach in zeitgenössischem Gewand

Wer sich schon einmal mit der Rolle des Computers im zeitgenössischen Musikschaffen befasst hatte, dürfte seinen Namen schon einmal gehört haben: Karlheinz Essl, 1960 geborener Komponist, Performer und Entwickler, gehört zu den Pionieren auf dem Gebiet der Computermusik. Was für viele auch heute immer noch ungewohnt sein mag, wird von Essl seit den Neunzigerjahren kontinuierlich praktiziert und weiterentwickelt: die Benutzung des Computers als Werkzeug während des Kompositionsprozesses sowie die Verwendung des computerbasierten Metainstruments m@ze°2 bei Aufführungen und Performances. Ein Blick auf die eindrucksvolle Website des Österreichers (www.essl.at) lässt wichtige Einblicke in diese Arbeit und ihre theoretischen Fundamente zu; eine CD von Preiser Records vermittelt darüber hinaus das Ergebnis eines aktuellen, im Mai 2003 uraufgeführten Projekts mit dem klangvollen Namen ‚Gold.Berg.Werk’, im Untertitel exemplifiziert als ‚eine Interpretation der Goldberg-Variationen BWV 988 von Johann Sebastian Bach für Streichtrio und Live-Elektronik’.

Modifikation der Vorlage

Konkret setzt Essl hier nicht etwa an Bach selbst, sondern – beauftragt von den Musikern des Orpheus Trios (Christina Neubauer, Violine; Martin Kraushofer, Viola; Eva Landkammer, Violoncello) – an der von Dimitry Sitkovetsky erstellten Streichtrio-Bearbeitung der Goldberg-Variationen an. Obgleich diese mehr und mehr im Konzertsaal zu hören und mittlerweile auch auf CD erhältlich sind, erweisen sie sich im Hinblick auf ihre Faktur als höchst problematische Transkription des Originals. Denn allzu offensichtlich verrät ihre Machart, dass hier jemand Hand angelegt hat, der ein prominentes Werk zwecks Repertoireerweiterung umzugestalten suchte, ohne sich indessen im geringsten um die unterschiedlichen Erfordernisse von Tasteninstrument und Streichern Gedanken zu machen. Die Konsequenz hiervon ist, dass gerade Bachs Variationen im Toccatenstil, die sich stark an den spieltechnischen Möglichkeiten eines zweimanualigen Cembalos orientieren, in Sitkovetskys Übertragung überhaupt nicht funktionieren und sich als höchst fragwürdig erweisen.

Essl begegnet diesem Umstand mit dem Mut zur Lücke, streicht die entsprechenden Teile (Variationen 1, 5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 23, 26, 28 und 29) aus dem Kontext der Trioversion und fasst die verbleibenden 19 Variationen unter jeweils zwei mal zwei thematischen Blöcken als ‚Charaktervariationen I’ (Variationen 2, 4, 7, 10 und 13), ‚Canones I’ (Variationen 3, 6, 9, 12 und 15), ‚Charaktervariationen II’ (Variationen 16, 19, 22 und 25) und ‚Canones II’ (Variationen 18, 21, 24, 27 und 30) zusammen. Diese neue, im Vergleich zur ursprünglichen Form der ‚Goldberg-Variationen’ ungewöhnliche Anordnung der Einzelteile, umrahmt von der eröffnenden und schließenden ‚Aria’, gliedert er nun, die strenge Symmetrie des originalen Gesamtaufbaus wahrend, mit insgesamt fünf neu komponierten Teilen (‚Aria Electronica I’, ‚Sarabanda Electronica’, ‚Aria Electronica II’, ‚Fantasia Chromatica Electronica’, ‚Aria Electronica III’), so dass sich letzten Endes eine alternierende Abfolge von Abschnitten mit Streichtrio und Live-Elektronik ergibt.

Musikalisches Ergebnis

Durch diese Eingriffe schafft Essl zwei zeitlich voneinander getrennte Klangräume, die zwar musikalisch zusammenhängen und sich gegenseitig kommentieren, ohne sich aber jemals klanglich zu vermischen. Ausgangspunkt für die in drei Variationen auftauchende ‚Aria Electronica’ ist ein aus der originalen ‚Aria’ abgeleitetes, in langsamen Viertelbewegungen fortschreitendes harmonisches Gerüst aus Streicherklängen, das durch Anwendung von m@ze°2 in Echtzeit während der Aufführung modifiziert wird (und daher auch wie jeder Notentext in gewissen Grenzen jedes Mal anders klingen kann). Essl spinnt dadurch den Bachschen Variationsgedanken auf einer anderen Ebene weiter, wie er auch in den beiden übrigen elektronischen Teilen variierend auf Materialien der jeweils zuvor erklingenden Variationen – nämlich auf den Sarabande-Charakter von Variation 13 und die chromatische Kontrapunktik von Variation 25 – zurückgreift. Indem er zudem die Lautsprecher vom Streicherensemble weg versetzt, vermittelt er den Eindruck von räumlicher Nähe und Ferne dieser unterschiedlichen Klangräume.

Das auf CD gebannte Ergebnis ist faszinierend, vermittelt einen ganz neuen Eindruck von Bachs Komposition und ist vor allem in seiner Gesamtheit viel schlüssiger als Sitkovetskys ungenügende 1:1-Transkription. Die drei Streicher finden sich sehr gut in den Variationsblöcken zurecht und reagieren – unter Verzicht auf eine barockisierende Vortragsweise – mit sehr transparenter Klanglichkeit auf die so andersartigen Farbwerte der veränderten Abfolge. Essls live-elektronische Teile fesseln durch den Beziehungsreichtum, mit dem sie auf die Streicherebene reagieren, während sie zugleich weit darüber hinausgehen, indem sie ein neues klanglich-musikalisches Gewebe generieren. Hier ist eine sehr ernsthafte und vor allem zeitgemäße Auseinandersetzung mit Bachs ‚Goldberg-Variationen’ entstanden, unterstrichen durch einen ausführlichen Booklet-Kommentar, in dem Essl seine Arbeitsprinzipien detailliert erläutert. Und als Zugabe enthält die CD einen viereinhalbminütigen Videoclip, entstanden anlässlich der Aufnahme von ‚Gold.Berg.Werk’ im Casino Baumgarten Wien, der anhand der ‚Aria’ verdeutlicht, wie Triopart und elektronische Variation miteinander in Beziehung stehen.



Neue Klänge zu alter Musik (Frank Kämpfer)
Werke von Georg Kröll, Michael Villmow, Karlheinz Essl
in: Deutschlandfunk (30 Nov 2008)

Die dritte und letzte neue CD, die ich Ihnen heute anspielen will, führt zurück zu Johann Sebastian Bach. Zugrunde liegen Bach berühmte Goldberg-Variationen, die in Dmitriy Sitkovetskys Bearbeitung ein Wiener Streichtrio spielt. Hier interessieren elektroakustische Bearbeitungen, für die der Wiener Elektroniker Karlheinz Essl einsteht. Essl, Jahrgang 1960, Schüler von Friedrich Cerha und Dieter Kaufmann, analysierte Bachs Werk, reduzierte es auf sein harmonisches Gerüst und lies dieses im Studio aufnehmen. Mit dem so gewonnenen Material begann Essl live-elektronisch zu improvisieren. Bachs Variationskonzept galt es, in klanglichen Bereichen weiter zu denken. Die so entstandenen drei Arie Electronice und zwei elektronischen Variationen führen in eine gänzlich andere, faszinierende Klangwelt, in der zeitliche Dehnungen, Obertonstrukturen, Flageolettklänge und elektronische Sounds vorherrschend sind.

Um seine Ergebnisse darzustellen, entschied sich Essl, Bachs Original und seine elektroakustische Lesart streng voneinander zu trennen. Das Streichtrio hatte demnach frontal vor dem Publikum zu agieren, während die elektronischen Klänge aus dem Notebook zunächst den Weg zur Kirchendecke und hernach erst von oben herab zum Publikum nahmen. Auch auf der in 2008 bei Preiser Records erschienenen CD Gold.Berg.Werk sind die zwei musikalischen Sphären klar unterscheidbar, wie das abschließende Hörbeispiel anschaulich zeigt.



Gold.Berg.Werk (Karsten Zimalla)
in: WESTZEIT (1 Feb 2009)

Bachs Goldberg-Variationen kennen wohl selbst Klassik-Muffel. Der österreichische Klangkünstler Essl verwandte für sein Experiment aber nicht den Cembalo- oder Klaviersatz, sondern die Transkription für Streichtrio von Dmitri Sitkowetzki. Die vom Trio gespielten Klänge editiert er (gerne auch live) im Powerbook und stellt dann der (hier betörend schön eingespielten) Streicherfassung eine Spiegelung/Entgegnung/Neudeutung zur Seite, die Bachs Strukturen mit neuen Klangfarben ausfüllt. Die Entscheidung, die barocke und die elektronische Klangwelt auch auf der CD konsequent zu trennen und den 19 "klassischen" Variationen 5 "moderne" gegenüberzustellen, führt zu hochspannenden Konfrontationen von (zeitlicher) Nähe und Ferne.



Gold.Berg.Werk (Carsten Fastner)
in: FALTER 32/2008 (6 Aug 2008)

Trotz allem nicht zu verkennen ist Bach auch auf „Gold.Berg.Werk“ (Preisser), einem Projekt des Wiener Elektronikers Karlheinz Essl mit dem Orpheus Trio: Eine Transkription der „Goldberg-Variationen“ für Streichtrio (D. Sitkovetsky) wird hier mit mathematisch durchargumentierten, musikalisch irritierenden elektronischen Einschüben und Nachklängen unterbrochen.

Auch wenn Essl Bachs ewige Modernität nicht infrage stellen möchte, muss offenbleiben, wie der Alte auf diese Intervention reagiert hätte.


Gold.Berg.Werk (Jeff Kaiser)
in: Jeff Kaiser Blogspot (10 Aug 2008)

Those of you who've known me a while, are familiar with my obsession with Bach's Goldberg Variations, and yes, particularly Glenn Gould's interpretations.

Karlheinz Essl, a compatriot of the Max/MSP community, recently recorded a version of the Goldberg Variations based on an existing string trio arrangement. Essl uses his Max/MSP rig, with a large dose granular synthesis, to create a choral-like call-and-response with the trio. I find it quite beautiful. Here is an excerpt from YouTube:


Mind the Crossing (Ivan Moody)
in: Early Music, Vol. 37, Issue 4 (Nov 2009)

Another approach is adopted in the Austrian composer's Karlheinz Essl's Gold.Berg.Werk (Preiser PR 90753, rec 2008, 63′), which alternates original Bach, performed by a string trio (the Orpheus Trio, whose name, rather extraordinarily, only appears en passant in the composer's insert note), and his live electronic ‘interpretation’, composed at the request of the same trio. Essl's note explains his initial reluctance to interfere unnecessarily with the Bach, his subsequent discovery of a way to go forward, building on the structure of the Goldberg Variations’ Aria, resulting in a new formal organization in which the instrumental variations are grouped together and separated by an electronic section. The result is enormously impressive: Essl takes Bach's material as played by the strings and stretches it, opens it out, and extends the harmonic spectrum through the use of overtones, which results in music that is not only a foil for that of the older composer, but is in itself internally consistent and often of great beauty. The disc includes a video clip of the recording session.


Gold.Berg.Werk (James Manheim)
in: allmusic (2009)

The large number of experiments inspired by Bach's Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, perhaps reaches its apogee in this Austrian recording (although no doubt someone will find a way to outdo it). It is the stable bass line of the variations that stimulates this kind of thinking: no matter how far the musicians get from the original, they can remain linked to it by that bass line. This Gold.Berg.Werk is packed with ideas that may at times interfere with one another, but you never lose track of what's going on. The chief problem is that programmer Karlheinz Essl does not perform his "electronic interventions" on Bach's music itself, but on another intervening layer: the arrangement of the work for string trio by Russian composer/performer Dmitry Sitkovetsky, which has been recorded by several other ensembles. Then Essl rearranges the variations. He groups them into canons, character variations, and harpsichordistic variations (corresponding to Ralph Kirkpatrick's traditional classification consisting of canons, genre pieces, and arabesques). Instead of performing the variations in sequence, he offers two sets of character variations and two sets of canons, in alternation. The harpsichordistic variations are simply eliminated. After the initial Aria, before its final reprise, and in between each group of variations comes an electronic intervention, variously designated as an "aria electronica," "sarabanda electronica," or "fantasia chromatica electronica." Each of these matches Bach's harmonic structure, but is in more or less free rhythm, and each seems to take off, in some cases without a pause, from the variation leading into it. If this was all not enough, the booklet instructs you in such concepts as the dialectic between nearness and distance, and on top of all this there is a video segment depicting the recording of the work. It's hard to pin down a principle that ties it all together beyond sheer speculation, which is here in abundance for those who like it.


Essl mit Bach in der Maschinenhalle (Leo Lugmayr)
in: NÖN (2.11.2011)

WAIDHOFEN. Ihre Funktion hat die Filterbauhalle längst eingebüßt. Die Inhaber der daraus erwachsenen Firma „duomet“ haben im Wirtschaftspark Ybbstal „das Weite“ gesucht.

Ein letztes Mal war der ausgehöhlte Komplex Bühne für Produktivität: musikalisches Schaffen. Und siehe da: Die Ästhetik der leer geräumten Maschinenhalle machte Staunen, die Akustik überraschte Skeptiker.

Auf Einladung der „duomet“-Geschäftsführer Willibald Hilbinger und Harald Schnetzinger adaptierte „Projekt:natur“-Inten dant Mag. Thomas Bieber den kargen Raum für eine Inszenierung des „Gold.Berg.Werks“. Ein Stück, das nach der Vorstellung des Komponisten und Friedrich-Cerha-Schülers Karlheinz Essl gerade in industriellem Ambiente wohl platziert ist.

Zwischen den neu arrangierten Sätzen von Bachs „Goldberg- Variationen“ spannte Essl elektronische Klangbrücken, deren Tragfähigkeit Klassik und Moderne passieren ließ, und deren Elastizität das Streichertrio „ein. klang.wien“ mit der suggestiven Kraft des Essl-Sphärenklangs zusammenführte. Sorgsam ummantelte Essl die wogende Kammermusikalität mit schwebenden Klangprojektionen, die sich in die Sparren des Dachstuhls einzunisten schienen.


Quer Bach (Mirjam Jessa)
in: Radio Ö1 (29.01.2015)

Karlheinz Essls Aria Electronica III - das Finale aus seinem Gold.Berg.Werk: Eine faszinierende Erkundung der Goldberg-Variationen mit Streichtrio und Elektronik. Die elektronischen Interventionen hat Karlheinz Essl selbstverständlich bei den Aufführungen stets live selbst gespielt, zusammen mit dem Trio Christina Neubauer (Violine), Martin Kraushofer (Bratsche) und Eva Landkammer (Cello).


Mut zur Leere
Ein Interview mit der Leipziger Animationskünstlerin Urte Zintler. Ihr Poesiefilm »Leerstelle« (2016) mit Musik von Karlheinz Essl
in: Poetryfilm Magazin (Weimar 2019), S. 74-77. - ISBN 978-3-936305-56-2

Die Musik zieht sich durch den gesamten Film, hat also einen großen Stellenwert. Kannst Du etwas zum Komponisten sagen? Warum hast Du genau dieses Stück ausgewählt?

Urte Zintler: "Der Komponist Karlheinz Essl ist Klangkünstler, Elektronik-Performer und Kompositionsprofessor für experimentelle Musik. Ich verfolge seine Arbeit schon seit einigen Jahren und freue mich sehr, dass bei Leerstelle eine Zusammenarbeit zustande gekommen ist.

Das Stück Aria Elektronica I aus Gold.Berg.Werk von Karlheinz Essl habe ich nach einer langen Recherche in vielen verschiedenen Bereichen der Musik ausgewählt, weil es sich wie ein autarker Klangteppich über den Film erstreckt, ihm fast traumartige Züge verleiht."

Der österreichische Komponist Karlheinz Essl (Jg. 1960) setzt sich in seinem Stück mit Bachs Goldberg Variationen auseinander, wobei das Original in der musikalischen Adaption erkennbar bleibt. Ein ästhetisches Prinzip, welches die 1975 geborene und in Luxemburg, Kassel und Leipzig ausgebildete Filmemacherin in ihrem Film aufgegriffen hat, denn den gezeichneten Sequenzen liegen durchweg Real lmvorlagen zugrunde.

Urte Zintler: "Ich war sofort fasziniert von der Lesbarkeit des Originalwerkes, das immer noch sichtbar ist. Essls Interpretation von Bach passte hervorragend in mein Konzept und zu der Art Film, die mir vorschwebte. Die Überbleibsel von elektronischer Verfremdung lösen immer wieder leichte Irritationen aus, die ich extrem spannend finde. Diese Momente, in denen man das Original erahnt, sind essentiell für mich in Musik, Text und Bild. (...)"

Am Anfang der Filmproduktion stand die Beschäftigung mit der Musik. Die Bild-Musik-Sound-Beziehung wirkt daher in diesem Film besonders intensiv. Erst im weiteren künstlerischen Prozess wurden die Auszüge aus bekannten Gedichten von Hilde Domin zusammengestellt (...)


'Music is living, growing, evolving'
Xenia Pestova Bennett gets set to perform a radical interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Music for Galway’s midwinter festival
in: Galway Advertiser (Jan 14, 2021)

The Goldberg Variations holds a hallowed position within classical music. “It is part of the culture of playing any keyboard instrument,” Xenia Pestova Bennett says. “It’s part of the repertoire, it’s venerated, it’s the piece you aspire to be able to play.” Xenia relefts on the almost spiritual power of the music. “I remember seeing a very memorable performance of the work in 2000/2001, with András Schiff. The way he held his hands before he even touched the piano, it was like he was praying. I thought, ‘Wow, this is something special’. “The Goldberg Variations are “very mathematical and precise”, but as it develops, “it transcends this to become something spiritual,” says Xenia, and she notes how much of this is established within the piece’s opening movements: “It’s a microcosm within a macrocosm.”

Karlheinz Essl’s Gold.Berg.Werk is the piece as never heard before, mixing the seemingly unmixable of the acoustic classical with the electronic. Xenia explains how these elements will be used and how they will come together.

“Gold.Berg.Werk is very respectful of the original,” she says. “It takes the beginning and the end, but changes the order of the other variations inbetween, to reflect on the idea of the different character of the variations. It intersperses the variations with electronic interludes, so neither the piano or the electronics are played at the same time. They speak separately. It’s a conversation. The electronic interludes each reflect on the musical piece that has gone before.”

Those interludes will be assisted by the use of two loudspeakers, one of which is a specialised unit that only makes sound when in contact with the floor. “The effect is really magical,” says Xenia. “The end of a piano variation dies away, and then swells and comes back. It’s an illusion, as if the piano is still playing, and playing itself.”

The idea of reimagining such an iconic work, and paring it with electronica may be sacrilegious to some, but as Xenia points out, the work was originally written for harpsichord - it was never intended for performance on piano, the instrument on which it is chiefly heard today.

“Bach was open to having his work played on different instruments and in different contexts,” she says. “We are talking about putting the piece into a new context, and why not? Through this, the work can reach audiences it otherwise wouldn’t reach.”


The Worlds Within a Single Work (Brendan Finan)
Music for Galway's annual midwinter festival, which took place online at the weekend (22–24 January), focused on a single, relentlessly inventive work: the Goldberg Variations
in: The Journal of Music (Jan 28, 2021)

(...) Four performances, over three days, of essentially the same work – Malcolm Proud playing it on harpsichord; Xenia Pestova Bennett and Ed Bennett in a twenty-first-century arrangement for piano and live electronics by Karlheinz Essl; Maia Cabeza, Sergey Malov, and Natalie Clein performing Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s 1985 string trio arrangement; and the filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon’s documentary recording of Glenn Gould in studio in 1981.

Karlheinz Essl’s Gold.Berg.Werk was conceived originally for the 1985 string trio arrangement of the Goldbergs by Dmitri Sitkovetsky, and was performed in its piano arrangement on Saturday evening by wife-and-husband duo Xenia Pestova Bennett and Ed Bennett. It reorders most of the variations and discards ten, while placing live electronic interludes between the aria and variations, and between every fifth variation. If the intimacy of Proud’s performance was enhanced by the fact that the festival was live-streamed, this one may have suffered most: the electronic part, produced from the trio version, is performed live, and relies on spatialised speakers, so its effect may have been diminished.

Reordering the variations creates some interesting juxtapositions tying the minor-key variations 21 and 25 together, or linking the bouncy styles of variations 12 and 7. Likewise, the electronic parts often grow beautifully out of the piano; the first electronic aria sounding like a computer singing back the original; and ‘Aria Electronica II’ adding an extra dissonance like a knife twist atop the minor key variation that concludes the first half. The composer states that he ‘juxtaposes the variations in a strictly symmetrical structure’ – although his meaning is not quite clear from listening. The overall direction is similar, though: the canons at every third variation retain their order, and the other variations which surround them retain their approximate, if not their exact, position in the work.

The performance was sensitive, Pestova Bennett employing delicate little asynchronicities in the piano and Bennett attentive to the delicate balance of the electronic sound. Despite this, though, I found myself longing for the electronic parts to weave more into the piano material, and for the piano to pull new ideas into its orbit.


Xenia Pestova Bennett and Ed Bennett – Gold.Berg.Werk – J​.​S. Bach / Karlheinz Essl
in: The Journal Of Music (Dublin, 12 Nov 2021)

Gold.Berg.Werk is a new album from Xenia Pestova Bennett and Ed Bennett, released on the Ergodos label. The work is a radical re-interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl, performed by Xenia on piano, with live electronic diffusion by Ed. The work is manipulated in real time, played back through spatialised loudspeakers in between the piano variations, bringing together Baroque and contemporary sound worlds. The duo previously performed it as part of Music for Galway’s Goldberg festival last year, and recently at Cafe OTO and the Hugh Lane. Pestova Bennett writes: ‘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. 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 (‘gold mine work’), a new piece in its own right, takes Bach’s music as a point of departure and offers a fresh perspective.’ Available to purchase from Bandcamp...


JS Bach/Karlheinz Essl: Gold.Berg.Werk – Electronic meditations and variations (Michael Dervan)
in: The Irish Times (Dublin, 17 Dec 2021)

Bach’s protean Goldberg Variations have been recorded hundreds of times, on many different instruments, in a variety of arrangements, and with wildly diverse notions of fidelity to the original. This year alone I’ve encountered an orchestration that interleaves the variations with 11 new works; a version for violin, cello and guitar; and an airily decorated piano version by Hannes Minaar that appends a single new piece by Daan Maneke as a bonus.

Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl’s Gold.Berg.Werk (the title translates as both Gold.Mountain.Work and Goldmine) was originally conceived around Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s 1980s arrangement for string trio. This latest version has Essl’s electronic meditations separating his culled (from 30 to 20) and reordered take on the variations with Xenia Pestova Bennett on piano.

Bach vs Essl
The overall impression, strangely, is that there’s too much Bach and not enough Essl. The links from Bach into echo-filled electronics, spatialised by Ed Bennett, work pretty seamlessly. But the returns to the original jar, as if the transitions into Essl’s blurry synthetic world were cared about more than those in the other. There’s nothing here of the sustained fantasy of Robin Holloway’s Gilded Goldberg’s for two pianos. But Gold.Berg.Werk does still suggest that there’s an effective marriage of instruments and electronics waiting somewhere for the Goldbergs.


Karlheinz Essl: Gold.Berg.Werk (Ben Harper)
in: Cooky La Moo unpopular music (15 Nov 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.


Gold.Berg.Werk: J. S. Bach & Karlheinz Essl (Colin Clarke)
in: Classical Explorer (13 Jan 2022)

No matter how many Goldbergs you have inyour collection, this is a must-have supplement.

This is an amazing re-interpretation of the Bach Goldberg Variations. We hear the entire work performed by Xenia Pestova Bennett, but interspersed with electronic "diffusion" movements composed by Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl in response to Bach's masterpiece. We start from this, of course, Bach's "Aria":

Essl responds to Bach's Aria with one of his own, "Aria Electronica" - we clearly hear echoes of the muscial material, suspensions and so on - but as if from a distance, as if in a dream. Bach's harmonies are time-stretched and manipulated in real time and played back through spatialised loudspeakers in between the Bach variations. Here's that "Aria Electronica":

As pianist Xenia Pestova Bennett puts it, this takes the piece away from the idea of a "fixed artifact" and enables it to appear as a "living and evolving organism" - "a new piece in its own right".

I remember listening to contemporary music for an extended period with a (Baroque-orientated) friend at University once - when we played some Bach, she commented it was like a veil was lifted. There's something of that here - when Bach returns from his contemporary electronic adventures, there's a clarity that is somehow appreciated all the more by the listener. Bach's piece therefore becomes a "Gold Mine," a launchpad for Esel's imagination. The recording also exists as a binaural download which is much recommended - the electronica becomes a truly immersive experience. Here's an extended lecture on the piece by the performer, Xenia Pestova Bennett:

Karlheinz Essl (born 1960) studied with Friedrich Cerha (he who completed the third act of Berg's opera Lulu and is a noted composer in his own right) at the Vienna Musikhochschule and electro-acoustic music with Dieter Kaufmann.

The musical tripartite marriage (!) of Bach with Pestova Bennett and Essl made in heaven - Pestova Bennett works with contemporary composers often, but also is able to present Bach's textures in pellucid terms. Her ornamentation is supremely judged, and she fully exploits the capabilities of the modern piano while remaining true to Baroque performance practice. Essl's re-interpretation dates back to the beginning of this Millennium and his connection with the Orpheus Trio Vienna - here's a film about that event:

In the present recording, the piano itself is used as projector of the electronic sounds (a transducer is placed onto the resonance board, so that the sounds emerge as a property of the instrument itself). In addition, a live spatialisation is effected by moving the sounds between te transducer inside the piano and a second ("lontano") loudspeaker, far away from the piano, enabling the sound to appear near or far by design - this aspect was effected by composer Ed Bennett. The achievement is that the shape of Bach's masterpiece is retained, and in a sense amplified. The trajectory of the piece leads back to a final statement of the Aria - but of course we can necer experience it as we did at the beginning. That sense of transfigured return is underlined here, just as the Baroque gravitas of the "Overtura alla Francesca" at the work's midpoint is doubly emphasised by the four-minute "Ars Electronica II" that precedes it:

The "dance" between Baroque is hypnotic and fascinating - particularly so as it just feels so "right" because Essl's responses emerge from, and return to, the source.

The performance of the Bach was recorded at the University of Belfast in September 2020, while the electronic movements were rendered in Vienna in August of that year.

At only £7.99 at Amazon, this is a wonderful buy! No matter how many Goldbergs you have in your collection, this is a must-have supplement. It's possible you'll never hear them in the same way again.


Gold.Berg.Werk (Stuart Broomer)
in: theWholeNote (5 Feb 2022)

When Karlheinz Essl (b. Austria 1960) was approached by the Orpheus Trio in 2002 to arrange an existing string-trio version of the Goldberg Variations with the addition of live electronics, his initial reactions were “astonishment and bewilderment: how could that be possible with this music? Was there any artistic necessity of doing so? The idea of manipulating the sound of the live instruments electronically, of ‘spicing it up,’ seemed almost sacrilegious.” The trio was persistent however and this eventually led to the first of four (so far) realizations of Gold.Berg.Werk: for string trio; for harpsichord; for saxophone quartet; and, most recently, for piano.

It is a recording of this last variety, featuring Xenia Pestova Bennett (Ergodos ER33), that arrived on my desk last month. In Gold.Berg.Werk – a pun on Goldberg Work and Gold Bergwerk (to mine, as in mining for gold) – Bach’s Goldberg Variations are “confronted with electronic sounds that are played between groups of variations, bridging the gap between the sound world of the Baroque era and the sonic reality of the third millennium.” The electronics are based on the harmonic progression of the fundamental Aria, from which the composer stripped all figurations and ornaments. Through manipulation of the overtone spectrum and the use of granular synthesis – compressing, stretching, and stopping forward motion ad libitum carried out in real time with the help of compositional algorithms – Essl has created five electronic interludes, which in live performance are spatially projected in surround sound throughout the auditorium. Even in the binaural mix for CD the sound is immersive and compelling.

Pestova Bennett’s outstanding performance of the selected movements, 20 variations chosen by Essl and arranged in groups of five, bookended by the signature Aria, is beautifully integrated into the overall fabric of this “new” work. Regarding Essl’s question as to whether there was any artistic necessity to enhance such an iconic piece in the first place, I suppose we each have to decide for ourselves. For me, Gold.Berg.Werk has brought a new perspective that, after initial resistance to the idea, I have embraced and found enchanting.



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Updated: 21 Feb 2022

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