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Jeremy Denk's 'Goldberg Variations'

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations (with DVD "liner notes"), J. Denk
Saturday afternoon, Washington Performing Arts Society presented pianist Jeremy Denk in the intimate Kennedy Center Terrace Theater performing J.S. Bach’s archetypal Goldberg Variations. Denk gave the impression not of being a musical vessel for Bach, but of being a vessel for himself due to loud, aggressive playing, an ad hoc approach to rhetoric, and a short-term musical horizon. Bach is generally the earliest music programmed by concert pianists. This can give the performer the perspective that they are looking back into the past from the styles of Mozart and beyond, instead of forward from the music of the Renaissance and early Baroque. This perspective of “looking backward” in time was evident in Denk’s performance of the Goldberg Variations, originally written for harpsichord, which suffered from the full sound and pedaling of a concert grand piano by the first of thirty variations. Perhaps this non-contained dynamic approach might have been more palatable in a large hall.

Other disappointments included inconsistent rhetoric like random ornaments added on random repeats, varying articulation on repeats, ad hoc eliding of variations, and a lack of a common approach to musical figures. Similar musical figures, or shapes, were often articulated differently, leading to a linguistic confusion. Denk attempted to distract listeners from this confusion by moving the rhetoric from the score to his face and gestures. Twice in the program Denk turned his head to stare intensely at the audience at his favorite moments: first at a pivotal moment harmonically in the opening movement of Mozart’s Sonata No. 15 in F, which opened the program; second at a point in the Fughetta of Variation Ten in the Bach. This over-the-top gesture was effective in the exquisitely balanced Mozart, and less so in the Bach.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Pianist Jeremy Denk’s ‘Goldberg Variations’: A revealing journey into the soul (Washington Post, October 14)
The Goldberg Variations begins and ends with the the Aria that gives the bass line from which the thirty variations are constructed. Keeping in mind that the variations are structured upon the ground bass and its implied harmonic path, Denk could have served the music better by beginning with and adhering to a tempo that suited the entire piece through its varying tempo relationships in a labyrinth of time signatures. The strongest evidence of Denk’s "every variation is an island" approach is that the final Aria concluding the piece was markedly slower than the statement that opened the work. This lack of balance in tempo and restraint in dynamics defeated the structured splendor with sparkling detail the Baroque style has to offer. Denk had this satisfying stylistic balance and polished detail when playing Bach’s Toccata in D, BWV 912, at his 2010 WPAS performance at the Terrace Theater.

The next pianist featured by WPAS will be Yuja Wang, in a recital at Strathmore (October 25, 8 pm).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a fascinating take on Denk's recital. He really seems to get nothing but raves from the usual suspects and it's great to get some balance in the coverage. I heard him once in chamber music here in DC and was left wondering what the fuss is all about.