Johann Sebastian Bach published his Goldberg Variations in 1741, making it one of a small number of works to see the light of day while the great composer was still alive. Reportedly, the work was named for a student of Bach’s, Gottlieb Goldberg. It’s possible he was the first to perform the Variations.
Goldberg was introduced to Bach by Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling, a former Russian ambassador to the court of Saxony. Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations to help the Count, an insomniac, cope with restless nights.
Berlin pianist and composer Henning Schmiedt has reinterpreted Bach’s extraordinary work on a gorgeous new disc entitled Schlafen (Sleep). Performed on upright muted piano, Schmiedt’s new variations describe a hypnosis experience.
Like the original, the work is bookmarked by “aria,” and “aria da capo” (fresh air). The titles in between provide a clear description of what the album has to offer: “It doesn’t start yet,” “as it was,” “the day,” “forget it,” “the presence,” “deep in –,” “and exhale,” “pssst!,” “you get tired” and “and … sleep.”
Each is more delicately exquisite than the one before. As Schmiedt’s work puts us increasingly at ease, the quietly powerful combination of his sparse compositions and performance lingers long after the album has ended. The disc was recorded live with microphones placed close enough to the piano that we’re able to hear not just the notes, but the piano itself.
These pieces are both respectful of the history and attuned to the expectations of a modern-day listener. You’re likely to see it classified as a new age recording. It’s not that at all. Schlafen is a new classical work fully deserving of the respect and admiration given to great works in the genre.
As is Schmiedt himself. The composer and concert pianist has a discography that dates back to 1996. He has accompanied, arranged and produced multiple international artists, including Mikis Theodorakis, Zülfü Livaneli, Sema, Lauren Newton, Al di Meola and Petros Pandis. He has composed film soundtracks, sound installations and received multiple awards for his work.