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Denk's journey through Bach's 'Goldbergs' playful and profound
By John von Rhein
Few of today's important concert pianists have pondered J.S. Bach's "Goldberg" Variations as deeply, written about the piece as extensively or play it as exuberantly, as Jeremy Denk.
His absorbing performance of this Baroque keyboard masterpiece on Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall followed on the heels of several blog posts he did in recent years for National Public Radio, including a wickedly funny essay titled "Why I Hate the Goldbergs."
One measure of how fully he is able to draw the listener into his own feeling of renewed discovery when playing the "Goldbergs" was how quietly and attentively the audience took in all 70 minutes of this opening recital of the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series, before breaking into sustained applause.
To an extent, every modern interpreter must operate in the long shadow cast by the late Glenn Gould's pioneering reinvention of Bach's iconic set of 30 variations. Denk has broken free of the Gouldian model, even if certain tempos he adopted for fast variations, No. 8 in particular, felt rushed, as if he were trying to beat the land speed record of the Canadian pianist's famous 1955 recording. Even so Denk's rhythmic verve was very much in the Gould class.
In the informative "video liner notes" DVD that accompanies Denk's newly released Nonesuch recording of the "Goldbergs," the pianist says he likes to think of the piece as "a vast desert of happiness in which there are oases of sadness." He also points to "the continuity of the harmony" as "the soul of the 'Goldberg' Variations." Both observations informed Sunday's performance.
Each variation had a distinct expressive character, yet a cohesive structural integrity was maintained. Denk set a moderate pace for the opening aria, a stately sarabande whose 32-measure bass line inspired Bach to compose this astonishing series of inventions, canons and dances, plus an overture and a quodlibet (a piece combining two German folk tunes). Observing most, if not all, the repeats, the pianist emphasized the playful aspect of many of the variations; for instance, he had fun with the racing 16th notes of No. 23, a capricious, even madcap variation Denk has likened to a silly cartoon on a Saturday-morning kids' TV show.
That palpable sense of joie de vivre also suffused his account of Variation 20, with its dazzling chain of rapid triplets, and the sprays of arpeggios that make up Variation 29, which Denk considers "the most schizophrenic" of the set; it certainly sounded it here. Bass lines were a model of clarity and definition, staccatos as crisp as could be. There was almost no use of pedal, yet there was no attempt to turn the modern concert grand piano into a fake harpsichord.
And Denk found all manner of ways to subvert the harmonic monotony of G major Bach built into the "Goldbergs." Sometimes he lowered the dynamic level for repeated sections, sometimes inflected the phrasing with subtle rubato, or both. The limpid grace of his figuration in Variation 13 was so ravishing that one couldn't imagine the piece played more beautifully.
The slower, more somber variations took on even greater profundity by virtue of the sunniness of their surroundings. Its aching chromatic lines moving with exquisite deliberation, the deeply tragic Variation 25 (dubbed "Black Pearl") was made to feel as disquieting as Bach no doubt intended. It was a key signpost in a memorable journey of Bachian discovery.
Denk offered a single encore, an affecting account of the Andante movement from Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 15 in F major, K.533.