IN: Reviews

Denk Shows His Work


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.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.


9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Hear hear. Denk excels in the extrovert aspects of the Goldberg Variations, which evoke many words with an ex- prefix: exciting, exhilarating, exuberant (more would be excessive). This realization was a labor of love in which the labor was hidden but the love was not.

    The question of how much variety there should be in a performance of these variations is a difficult one, because Bach has deliberately made it so by the extreme regularity of the work. Thirty-two sucessive pieces with the same tonic, both the whole and each piece in two halves of equal length (with one exception that marks the center of the the work), the orderly sequence of canons, etc. Some performers are driven to exaggerations and idiosyncracies to make this less apparent, or, if they are Glenn Gould in 1955, attempt to avoid any appearance of repetition by getting the whole thing over with as quickly as possible.

    Nevertheless the variations exhibit several different characters or moods that can be easily differentiated, and I think Denk captured them all with perhaps one exception. I can identify four main types; the brilliant, hand-crossing display pieces; the minor-key pieces that might be called sound-world variations, in which time moves slowly and every detail of the harmony is revealed; the breathless unwinding arabesques, orations of free melody, where ornament is elaborated into lyric, and lyric into narative, as in the aria and the thirteenth variation; and the dance-pieces, infectious interludes of elegance and grace, such as the seventh and twenty-fourth variations. There are of course other elements and combinations, as in the fughetta, which manages to be both sombre and gay, and the twenty-fifth variation, which carries a sustained melodic narrative in its dark heart.

    In the dance pieces Denk was good-natured and amiable but perhaps a little lacking in naturalness and elegance, as epitomized by performances like those of Angela Hewitt* or, surprisingly, Nicholas Angelich. Instead he seemed a little like someone who likes to dance but is a little afraid of seeming ridiculous. I look forward to listening to it all again when his CD comes out in a few weeks.

    *I thought I had a grasp of the Moran Doctrine of Rhythmic Reliability, but if Angela Hewitt is to be counted among the heathen condemned to be cast into the outer darkness, I am afraid I must number myself among the unbelievers.

    Comment by SamW — September 19, 2013 at 3:03 pm

  2. Thanks for posting this informative, analytical, and nicely composed ancillary review. The Denk performance is now online (Gardner music site) so all can judge for themselves. Jeffrey Gantz in the Globe also found elegance lacking to an extent but thought it as well rather too didactic and analytical. Not quoting and don’t mean to put words into another reviewer’s mouth.

    In relistening I find it rather softer-edged than in person but otherwise still a fine and varied journey.

    I am thrilled to be an uppercase proselyte for steadiness, and that Hewitt transcription Bach CD is really something, but I listened to her Goldbergs before and after this recital (have serious Goldberg fatigue now) and was surprised at the tiny moments of flagging or whatever it is. My in-head clicktrack must be stricter than most, I suppose (grips lectern), as most people do not find anything wrong with Andras Schiff’s new WTC, e.g. Needless to say, superior machinelikeness (how’s my German?) does not preclude flexible rubato, as Anton Heiller, and often Gould, demonstrated so perfectly, as different as they are otherwise.

    Do not know Angelich’s work much but will attempt to get to know better. I have been surprised to learn that with some keyboardists rhythmic strength and forward motion may vary by composer, for some reason: Paul Lewis’s Beethoven has it all, to my ear (practically like Stephen Kovacevich round 1), but his Schubert recently at Jordan Hall not at all.

    Thanks again for smart comment; appreciated. Every reviewer wants this.

    Comment by David Moran — September 19, 2013 at 4:07 pm

  3. I have noticed those tiny moments you mention in Hewitt’s playing but I attribute them to the imitation of harpsichord technique, in which small rhythmic variations can be used to add expressiveness. Whether this is a good idea, or an accurate understanding of harpsichord technique on my part, I don’t know, but I find the results completely convincing. In part I am led to this speculation through familiarity with my favorite recordings of hers, which are not of Bach, but of Couperin and Rameau. In my opinion her three CD’s of Couperin make the case for that composer’s music on the piano as well as anyone has ever done for Scarlatti on the same instrument. The only other pianist I know of that has recorded this repertoire, to brilliant, and entirely different, effect, is Alexandre Tharaud.

    Anyway, it was a wonderful concert, and I think you clearly caught the character and impact of it. What you described is what I heard.

    Comment by SamW — September 19, 2013 at 9:52 pm

  4. I think I’m responding to and describing something other, more mechanical and physical (failing) than musical expression. Meaning I think I know and properly recognize what you’re describing. Maybe I’m mistaken. When I can stand to hear a travel through the Goldbergs again, I will note the timings and pass them along. Don’t know Tharaud (going to YT now). Do you know Heiller’s Couperin set? (arkivmusic.) Suboptimal sound and instrument, 1959, but his typical swing.

    Comment by David Moran — September 19, 2013 at 11:00 pm

  5. Tharaud is one of the most interesting pianists around today. He has recorded several Baroque composers (Couperin, Rameau, Scarlatti, Bach), as well as some fine Chopin (he is French, he is required to play Chopin). He is a chamber-music partner with the magnificent cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, with whom he has recorded Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, and several works by Berg and Webern – on the same CD.

    Angelich did not make much of an impression on me – I thought of him as a serviceable but unremarkable Brahms specialist – until I heard his Goldbergs, which did make an impression, one which has not worn off yet. It may be a one-off; I have since watched a recital of his on in which he played the second English Suite along with some Chopin, and it was not too exciting.

    I don’t know Heiller; the only performances of Couperin on the harpsichord that I know are by Leonhardt .

    By the way, are you going to review the Goldberg/Diabelli double-header by Schiff in November ? I know you don’t feature Schiff much, but every dog…

    Comment by SamW — September 21, 2013 at 10:05 am

  6. – have now listened at length to Tharaud and Angelich, and yes, both very fine to my ear, tending to the soft and romantic, but supple and rhythmically shaped and all that good stuff. Angelich’s GB Aria is terribly enervated but the rest lovely and more. Thanks much.
    – Heiller more:
    – Schiff, yes, hopefully.

    Comment by David Moran — September 21, 2013 at 10:50 am

  7. and…he’s gotten a MacArthur Award!

    Way to go!

    Loved the Variations by the way. I agree with the review and comments.

    Comment by Leslie MIller — September 25, 2013 at 8:36 am

  8. Hooray ! This is exactly what MacArthur fellowships are supposed to be for; to give enormously creative, inventive, and dedicated people like Denk room to do their work. Excellent choice by the MacArthur Foundation.

    Comment by SamW — September 25, 2013 at 2:31 pm

  9. Jeremy Denk will open the 42nd season of the acclaimed Union College Chamber Series in Schenectady, New York, next weekend.


    Comment by Don Drewecki — September 26, 2013 at 6:34 pm

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