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Michael DENHOFF (b. 1955)
Bach-Variationen op. 114 (2013-15) [60:22]
Birgitta Wollenweber (piano)
rec. 2017, Krönungskutschensaal, HfM Hanns Eisler, Berlin
Reviewed in SACD binaural stereo
CYBELE RECORDS 161702 SACD [60:22]

Michael Denhoff’s name has cropped up in the past as a composer for player piano, but this Cybele release serves as a reminder that he is an award-winning musician with a wide variety of output. Of his Bach-Variationen he writes, “When I heard the final recording of the Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould, a wish grew inside me to create something comparably amazing and comprehensive.” This was back in 1981, and only decades later and still “wracked with self-doubt” he finally embarked on this mammoth task.

The theme for these variations derives from the ‘wonderfully sublime and simple’ Sarabande of Bach’s Fifth Suite. While Denhoff has approached many of the pieces with a similar discipline to Bach, using inversion, canons and the like, the variations embrace a stellar mixture of stylistic characteristics, though Bach himself is hard to find. For some sections, Denhoff uses the notes Bach left out of his Sarabande as a move towards ‘completeness’, and while the formal model of theme and variations is an old one, this has been appropriated to suit his own language and tastes in music. Hindemith is called to mind on occasion, and as each variation has dedications to the likes of Helmut Lachenmann and György Kurtág there are inevitably comparisons to be made with their respective music and processes.

In his booklet notes, Dr. Egbert Hiller sums up the Bach-Variationen as “a cosmos of connecting points, sources of inspiration and intellectual relationships [that] stretch beyond themselves in two senses – in one way as music that always speaks for itself despite its concrete references, and in the other as a (sound) space with windows and doors to give space for contemplation and reflection merely by virtue of directing one’s attention to the dedicatees and drawing imaginary relationships between sounds and images, sounds and words, sounds and thoughts.”

Reference is often made to the dedicatees of each variation in the booklet, but alas these are not listed anywhere in the text or track listing. Pianist Birgitta Wollenweber has worked intensively with the composer since 1996, also as his cello/piano duo partner, so we are assured of quality interpretations.

These are not ‘easy’ variations, but they reward our focused attention, and in seeking and finding the intellectual wavelength of the composer a rapport and appreciation soon develops. I don’t find this to be a particularly emotionally engaging experience, but such subjective responses are as personal as are the variations themselves. The recording is very good, though the acoustic is a bit betwixt and between. Cybele’s current standard makes this release playable in stereo, SACD surround or, to my constant personal delight, SACD binaural stereo for headphone listening. Cybele now also offers their recordings as gold USB flash drives with a variety of audio qualities available.

Dominy Clements



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