They're Taking Bach to the Future

Jeremy Denk
The Wall Street Journal

Of all America's up-and-coming classical instrumentalists, Jeremy Denk, the pianist-blogger who won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in September, might well be the most interesting. A brainy virtuoso at home in the world of words, he plays with a striking blend of deeply considered expression and total technical command. Mr. Denk records for Nonesuch, which favors smart artists who do it their way, and he made his solo debut for the label last year with a coupling of Beethoven's knotty C-Minor Piano Sonata, Op. 111, and György Ligeti's bracingly modern Piano Etudes, a fusion of past and present that set the critics to buzzing.

Now Mr. Denk has released his second Nonesuch album, a performance of Bach's "Goldberg" Variations, the mammoth keyboard masterpiece to which eggheads of all sorts have long been irresistibly drawn. It's gorgeously and insightfully played, and I can't imagine any musician not wanting to hear what so thoughtful an artist has to say about so towering a musical monument.

But what about everybody else? The "Goldbergs," after all, have already been recorded by such celebrated pianists and harpsichordists as Daniel Barenboim, Simone Dinnerstein, Keith Jarrett, Wanda Landowska, Murray Perahia and András Schiff, as well as in arrangements for brass choir, harp, marimba, organ and string trio. Glenn Gould recorded the "Goldbergs" twice, in 1955 and 1985, and both of his versions are widely and rightly regarded as indispensable. All this being the case, is it possible for any musician, even one as gifted as Mr. Denk, to further enhance our understanding of so oft-told a musical tale? Or would he have done better to pick a less well-known piece?

For my part, I find Mr. Denk's interpretation of the "Goldbergs" to be enthrallingly involving. He is one of our finest musical minds, and anything that such folk have to say about the classics is by definition worth hearing. Yet if you asked me to explain to a nonmusician why that is so…well, I'd be up against it. As obvious as the differences are to me between Mr. Denk's "Goldbergs" and Mr. Perahia's "Goldbergs," they don't lend themselves to simple verbal description, nor will they be self-evident to a listener who doesn't already know the piece well.

It's a lot easier for a drama critic to explain to his readers the point of going to see a new production of an ultrafamiliar play like, say, "King Lear." I've reviewed eight "Lears" for the Journal in the past decade, ranging from Bill Rauch's modern-dress Oregon Shakespeare Festival version, in which Shakespeare's aging monarch is seen relaxing after hours in a La-Z-Boy, to a Chicago staging by Robert Falls whose opening scene was set in a men's room. Some were remarkable, others preposterous, but all were sharply differentiated in ways that made immediate sense to lay audiences. Can the same thing be said of Mr. Denk's recording of the "Goldbergs," marvelous though it is and love it though I do? I suspect not.

Mr. Denk, who is nobody's fool, has shrewdly chosen to release his version of the "Goldbergs" as part of a two-disc set that also contains a DVD devoted to "video liner notes" in which he speaks with uncommon perspicuity about how the piece is put together, accompanying himself on piano. That's one way—and a good one—to stand out from the pack. An even better one is exemplified by another of Nonesuch's recent releases, an album in which Chris Thile plays three of Bach's sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin on mandolin. Mr. Thile, who is better known for the riotously creative music that he plays with the Punch Brothers, his progressive bluegrass-pop combo, is by no means a classical-music dilettante. His delicate yet propulsive interpretation of the G-Minor Sonata would be more than worth hearing on violin, and the pointed sound of the mandolin endows it with a thrillingly new palette of instrumental colors.

Don't take my word for it. The liner notes to Mr. Thile's album eloquently make the case for playing Bach on mandolin: "The plucked and decaying notes call the harpsichord to mind, a harpsichord freed from its box…. I can't help feeling a different weird connection between these ancient and arduous works of Bach and old-fashioned banjo picking, or country fiddling—the pleasure and discipline of virtuosity over centuries."

Well said…and who said it? None other than Jeremy Denk. He knows a good thing when he hears one, and so will you. If I had to guess what the future of recorded classical music will sound like, I'd bet on Mr. Thile's Bach—as well as on Mr. Denk's video liner notes. That's the kind of fresh thinking of which we can never have too much.