Denk traverses “Goldberg” Variations with freshness and humor

October 17, 2013
By Dennis Polkow
Jeremy Denk performed Bach's "Goldberg" Variations in Chicago at Symphony Center. Photo: Michael Wilson

Jeremy Denk performed Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations in Chicago at Symphony Center. Photo: Michael Wilson

The sheer familiarity of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a curse and a blessing. Amateur pianists love to tinker with them, and there were pianists aplenty in attendance at Jeremy Denk’s traversal of the Goldbergs Sunday afternoon at Chicago’s Symphony Center. Some followed with their fingers on air piano, while others were content to follow with personal scores.

Listeners know the work inside out from recordings, and many have a favorite or even multiple favorites. Expectations are thus high, room for error low. Little wonder Glenn Gould gave up performing live. The end result has been a live Goldberg performance tradition that tends towards the cautious and the reverential.

Not with Denk, thankfully.  As on his recently released Nonesuch recording, from the rather optimistic account of the opening Aria, Denk made clear that he considers this joyful music that should not be taken too seriously. He took his time unspooling the famous theme which allowed him to open up and take the repeat slightly faster and louder. His ornamentation was delightfully exaggerated yet organic and persuasive.

The first series of variations followed as a block, Denk bringing out the light, bouncy dancelike quality of the opening variation. He tended to emphasize a prominent quality in most preceding variations by carrying that same quality to the following one without interruption and always with a careful eye on the properties of the aria.

Sometimes Denk would come to larger fugues that he would treat as stand-alone pieces — presumably so that their structure would not be lost in the maze — but when a light-hearted cross-hand piece would follow, for instance, he would launch right in.

Occasionally when a toccata-like iteration was played, if Denk felt the musical content needed emphasis, those would be left alone as well. Each piece was allowed to breathe and his convictions as to where and when multiple variations should be treated as a unit and when not were immensely convincing.

Most repeats were taken but it is to Denk’s credit that there was contrast even within repeats so that they rarely seemed repetitive.

It was also striking that whenever the aria itself came up, Denk would use the same rubato and phrasing that he had in the aria to emphasize that fact, always having an eye on macro as well as micro properties of the piece.

A refreshing aspect of Denk’s interpretation was also how consistently lyrical it was, not a quality that is often emphasized in today’s Bach playing.

The seventy minutes flew by, Denk’s technique rarely faltering until he arrived at the end of the penultimate variation when he happened to hit the final note, of all things, clumsily. As a result, he came full circle to the aria with greater confidence and swagger. The audience was immensely appreciative and offered a well-deserved standing ovation.

After a series of bows, Denk obliged with a single encore, the Andante from the Mozart Sonata No. 15, K. 533, an ideal choice as it showed Mozart taking a similar, and in this case a more radical path as to what could be done in spinning out permutations on a theme which clearly owes a debt to Bach.

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