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Album review: Pianist Jeremy Denk's remarkable, colourful Goldberg Variations

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(Steve Pyke photo)
(Steve Pyke photo)

Seventy-five years ago, we didn’t need to ask ourselves why we might need to pay attention to the umpteenth recording of a Great Work. Now we do — and so we also need to bow deeply to musicians like Jeremy Denk, who provide us with clear reasons to rush to the store.

J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, written for a two-manual harpsichord nearly three centuries ago, are musical and artistic ballbreakers on many levels that include Glenn Gould’s two iconic recordings which no one on earth has been able to ignore. The Goldbergs are incredibly addictive for the listener as much as the interpreter, which has prompted so many others to try recording them — each with utterly different results.

Denk’s new effort, released today by the Nonesuch label, is nothing short of amazing.

goldbergI’ve had the benefit of spending the last two weeks obsessing over an advance copy of the CD (the final package also comes with a DVD filled with video liner notes from Denk, which I haven’t seen). After getting over the initial, eyes-open shock of how colourful Denk’s interpertation is, I’ve grown to love as well as respect his achievement more and more with each listen.

The 30 Variations sandwiched between the bewitchingly simple Aria are elaborate mathematical plays on the pedal point — not the melody — in the Aria. The music is filled with inner dialogue (called counterpoint) as well as all sorts of rhythmic invention related to baroque dance forms.

The interpreter has the option of playing it totally straight, giving each voice equal weight, placing the focus on the larger texture of each Variation. That comes naturally on a harpsichord, which doesn’t allow for subtle dynamic differentiation from one note to the next.

This is what Glenn Gould tried to replicate in his original recording.

Hand most other musicians a modern piano, with its seemingly infinite possibilities in dynamic modulation, and Bach’s Goldberg puzzle can literally become what the French appropriately call a casse-tête, a head-smasher.

A pianist can make each individual Variation sound interesting musically while respecting Bach’s notes (we also have to remember that Bach provided no indications for dynamics or tempo). But then he or she has to start relating one Variation to the next so that they make sense musically as well as aesthetically.

Most musicians spend many years learning then playing the Goldbergs in live concert before committing them to posterity on a recording. Denk is no exception. His results are remarkable in how they take full advantage of the dynamics and colours possible with a modern concert grand piano while also honouring Bach’s musical puzzle.

Denk consistently finds interesting voices to highlight and then throw into dialogue while also allowing each Variation to find its inner life force either through rhythm or melody — or both. As I mentioned earlier, it is colourful, bright, so very much alive. These Goldbergs dance from beginning to end without ever becoming too boisterous or overbearing.

I’ve had a lifelong love-hate relationship with how people approach the music of J.S. Bach. His cantatas and Passions are so deeply, intensely personal. His orchestral music is filled with life force, yet keyboard players spent the bulk of the 20th century thinking that the music must be played with robotic precision. How exactly does this fit the picture of a man who had superhuman characteristics but was still a real human being engaged in the business of bringing the eternal and the temporal together through harmony and counterpoint?

Denk is among the 21st century keyboard elect who have seen the light and made this music come alive with a human heart beating at its centre.

You can find all the details on this album here.

This is a sample of Denk’s video notes on the Goldberg Variations:

John Terauds

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