Denk Justifies ‘Genius’ Tag in Poetic ‘Goldberg’

Jeremy Denk, winner of a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, at the keyboard. (Michael Wilson)
Jeremy Denk, winner of a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, at the keyboard. (Michael Wilson)

By Donald Rosenberg

Talk about impeccable timing. Today’s release of Jeremy Denk’s Nonesuch recording of the Goldberg Variations was scheduled months ago, but with the announcement last week that the pianist was one of 24 recipients of the 2013 MacArthur “Genius” Awards, sales of the disc – and its accompanying DVD, with Denk demonstrating passages from the piece – could prove a Bachian bonanza.

Denk via Nonesuch - Bach's Goldberg VariationsGood for Denk. Good for Nonesuch. And, especially, good for Bach, whose monumental feat of musical dexterity once again astonishes ears, mind and heart. Who’d have thought that a work consisting of an aria and 30 variations – with the entire set taking approximately 75 minutes, depending upon which repeats are taken – could continue to intrigue keyboardists and listeners in an age of rampant instant gratification?

If anyone can rise to the occasion, it’s Denk, a musician of uncommon intellectual curiosity and artistic sensitivity. (He’s also a witty, insightful writer. Check out his blog, Think Denk, and his articles in The New Yorker* and elsewhere.) He has proven his gifts in repertoire ranging from Beethoven to Ives and beyond. With the Goldberg Variations, he turns back the musical clock while transporting Bach to fresh, 21st-century terrain.

Denk is one in an increasingly long line of pianists who’ve set hands and feet (judiciously, at the pedals) to a score once considered the exclusive territory of harpsichordists. Glenn Gould probed the possibilities of the Goldberg Variations on two recordings (1955 and 1981, highly different performances), and such distinguished and distinctive artists as Murray Perahia, Angela HewittSimone Dinnerstein, and András Schiff (who, like Denk, is taking the Goldberg Variations on tour this season) also have shared their views of the work for posterity.

Denk’s recording belongs in such authoritative company. The attention to texture, motion, harmonic implication and expressive shading he brings to Beethoven and Ives is also present in his illuminating account of the Goldberg Variations, which challenges the interpreter to maintain interest through pages and pages of G major. No problem. The fact that Bach roots most of the work in one bright key – with only three detours into minor – is never an issue for Denk, who switches character and atmosphere with deft assurance and cohesion as he ventures from variation to variation.

The supple nature of the performance is established at the outset in the aria, whose stately melancholy can be a green light for musicians to evoke an almost brooding aura at the start of this extended journey. Denk avoids any hint of gravity, finding grace and lilt in the noble phrases and treating ornaments as organic elements.

As the variations unfold and Bach’s wizardry sends dance forms and canons into myriad directions, Denk emphasizes the joy in most of the writing. Rhythms are ultra-buoyant, cross-handed passages dispatched with acrobatic ease and inner voices treated as crystalline layers. The minor-key variations, especially the transcendent No. 25, are moments when he relishes poetry and poignancy in the deeply thoughtful manner he applies to everything he touches.

Given the mesmerizing results of Denk’s voyage with Bach, it’s unlikely that anyone will take exception to the MacArthur’s declaration of genius.

*Look up Denk’s New Yorker articles by using this search form.

Denk performs the Goldberg Variations on Oct. 12 at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater in Washington, D.C., and Oct. 13 at Symphony Center in Chicago. He performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 with the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco (Nov. 7-10), then on tour at Carnegie Hall in New York (Nov. 13), and the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Nov. 15).

Donald Rosenberg is former music critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, author of The Cleveland Orchestra Story: “Second to None,” and immediate past president of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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