Jeremy Denk’s recently risen star is shining brighter than ever, to go by his powerful performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations last Sunday at the Gardner Museum. From the confident aria on, Denk engaged: staying on top of the long work fully, getting into it totally, and enjoying himself mightily in the most serious ways, left foot flying in enthusiasm, right foot pedaling perfectly around the edges. Rock ’n’ roll, a thinking man’s Goldbergs, if the man spends a lot of time at the gym. When not indulging in Bach’s manic power, Denk informed the brooding variations with reverence and quietude and an impeccably soft touch. A tremendous experience altogether.
This up-all-night journey of a piece is too familiar, for many of us, hard to hear completely fresh. Denk came close. As befits the last piece in a collection whose name most accurately translates as “Keyboard Workout,” the Goldberg Variations entail a lot of work. And as appropriate, Denk declaimed, pranced, sprinted, tunneled, waltzed, jumped, chimed, and lit numerous interiors, all of it triumphantly, all with a brilliance and exuberance that are seldom to be heard. Again and again, crosshand variations got commandingly dispatched, athletic, stately, mostly crystalline, and best of all with equal weight and force and valuation per arm. From this, one could hear many interior and lefthand lines anew. The three minor-key variations were given serious and thoughtful probing. My peeve about lack of rhythmic strength went largely unprovoked, although a couple of moments were faintly rushed. Denk’s steadiness seems generally more reliable than that of, say, Angela Hewitt and Andras Schiff.
I had worried beforehand about Denk’s technique for this demanding hour, since at the end of his recent Beethoven Opus 111 recording, and an online live performance of it, he loses the last touch of control. (Do no classical producers anymore use the piano teacher line, “That was great; let’s do it again”?) It’s all too easy these days for reviewers and audience to be spoiled by the dependable immaculateness and aplomb of so many other pianists, Denk’s age (early 40s) and younger. While this Gardner concert was not by any means effortless, Denk reigned over the piece.
The Goldbergs contain universes and multitudes, and as with the greatest paintings and the greatest architecture, the structure alone can be, and has been, rewardingly wandered through and studied for decades. (For a sample, see Denk’s own analyses in the video here ; the accompanying text gives as well a taste of his styles of thinking, high mixed with sometimes misfiring low.) Occasionally amid Denk’s flurries and emphases, however, I did sense a lack of variety of thought, a certain too speedy saminess to many of the approaches. Denk has said he is especially interested in the playful side of the composition. Let me turn the mike over to my attending musicologist:
What’s so appealing about Denk is the way he combines the chops and stage presence of a true performer with the skepticism and intellectual curiosity of a scholar—and proceeds to make the combination seem like the most natural thing in the world. His persona is of a regular guy who happens to have a lot of musical knowledge and skills. While he’s now made it into a very elite circle of musicians, he’d rather share his privilege than flaunt it; instead of trying to dazzle and overpower, he gives his audience the sense that they’re included. But this performance was not without flaws. The seeming boundless energy, though highly attractive and effective in itself, became too much of a good thing when applied as it was to the great majority of the variations. That effectively compressed their emotional range, while also throwing the few slow variations into such stark relief that they felt a bit unconnected to the rest.
In a (somewhat backhanded) way, it’s a testament to Denk’s strength as an artist that in spite of this, the recital was a resounding success, the Gardner audience unusually intent even for this performance space which abets deliberation. Standing ovations have lost their meaning today, yet there cannot be many recitals where virtually the entire house leaps to its feet within the first seconds of the applause. Denk’s knockout concentration, stamina, and unflagging perseverance had been registered and appreciated, clearly and with strength. And thankfully, just as the prolific writer offered no comments beforehand, there was now another right decision: for once, no encore.