Listen Magazine Feature
Pianist Jeremy Denk on the stakes of recording Bach’s Goldberg Variations
By Thomas May
In his first article for The New Yorker (“The Flight of the Concord,” February 6, 2012), pianist and Steinway Artist Jeremy Denk distilled the maddeningly quixotic experience of committing his interpretation of Charles Ives’ “Concord” Sonata to disc. Recordings, he mused, are really “manicured artifacts, from which the essential spectacle of human effort has been clipped away.”
One aspect of classical music that can puzzle newcomers is the enormous library of competing versions of the same blockbusters that have been — and continue to be — recorded.
One could argue that popular music shows a greater bias for the notion that a recording can capture a piece of music in its entirety. The original recording of songs such as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Hey Jude” is considered the “classic.”
These can of course be remastered, or performed afresh in any number of cover versions, but most often it’s the original that remains the Platonic form in which the music is ideally expressed: its ultimate measure.
Compositions such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, in contrast, can never transcend being mere approximations — whether in live performance or even in the most micromanaged studio setting — of the full richness of what their composers envisioned.
This is the deeper meaning of a classic: a work of art that has not just withstood the test of time but which, no matter how old or familiar, invites continual reinterpretation. Regardless of how often we’ve seen an album hyped as the “definitive” recording of a given work, there’s always room for a newcomer to reveal some unsuspected or underplayed angle in a way that reconfigures the whole experience.
Which isn’t to say that contributing to the already immense discography of one of the most revered pieces in the entire keyboard literature is to be undertaken lightly. Jeremy Denk resisted programming J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations in live performance for years — let alone attempting a recording — though he’d long been comfortable with the crazed virtuosity demanded by, say, Charles Ives and György Ligeti, whose keyboard music has featured prominently in his recitals.
It was through the encouragement of the late Toby Saks — a former New York Philharmonic cellist who became one of Denk’s mentors as the artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society — that he finally gave his first public performance of the Goldbergs in 2008 as part of Saks’s festival.
Not long before our conversation, Denk had returned to Seattle to perform as part of a celebration commemorating Saks. Denk points out, with a bittersweet note in his voice, that he’d managed to send Saks the final edits of his Goldberg recording over the summer, during the last few days before her sudden death from rapidly advancing cancer.
“For so long I didn’t want to play the piece,” Denk recalls. “Toby had said, ‘It will change your life.’ And it certainly did.”
Returning to the place where he first performed the piece is especially fitting, since Denk believes the way Bach captures time — not just passing, but in relation to what has gone before — is a key to the allure of the Goldbergs, and is what draws interpreters back to this music, as if to a particularly reliable oracle.
“One’s sense of how the time should proceed in Bach changes a lot over the years. The Goldberg Variations feel like a life journey — that’s one of the piece’s great appeals — from beginning to end. Its length plays into that, so by the end you feel like you are a changed person. And that’s true in the wider sense in that I definitely feel I’m a changed musician since I started playing this piece.”
In fact, Bach’s 1741 creation stands apart even from his other keyboard compositions and is, according to Bach scholar Robert L. Marshall, “the largest-scaled single keyboard work published at any time during the eighteenth century.” You have to fast-forward to late Beethoven — the “Hammerklavier” Sonata and Diabelli Variations — to encounter a similarly monumental conception for solo keyboard.
The obituary for Bach co-written by his son Carl Philipp Emmanuel attempts to pinpoint the unique quality of Johann Sebastian’s genius with a description that could also serve as a summary of the Goldbergs: “He need only have heard any theme to be aware — it seemed in the same instant — of almost every intricacy that artistry could produce in the treatment of it.”
This brings to mind Michelangelo’s ability to perceive the finished statue embedded in a faceless block of marble. But where the sculptor homes in on one ideal form buried in the material, Bach approaches his theme in the Goldbergs as the scaffolding on which to build a parade of thirty utterly distinct perspectives.
The whole is framed by the theme and its literal reprise, a destination point that by the end seems light years removed from that pristine initial statement. (The “theme,” by the way, isn’t the indelible melody played by the right hand but the bare-bones harmonic line underpinning and outlining it in the bass.)
Intriguingly individual and full of character in mood, tempo, rhythm, ornamentation, and the like, the variations add up to an encyclopedic anthology of musical styles known to Bach, and even anticipate some yet to come.
For all the work’s quasi-sacred aura — Rosalyn Tureck, a legendary interpreter of the Goldberg Variations, even became known by the epithet “high priestess of Bach” — Denk is hardly one inclined to uncritical worship or mystical effusions. In the archives of his blog (think denk), you can find the pianist’s real-life impressions at the time he was practicing Bach’s formidable score in 2008: “[I]t’s effing ineffable! … [T]his perfection bothers you a little. Maybe not the perfection, but the ready availability of perfection. Or its persistence, its way of sitting there, blinking at you, paginated.”
Denk went on to introduce his version of the Goldbergs on recitals, intriguingly paired with Ligeti’s Études. Both his Ligeti and his Bach — as well as his Beethoven — won the admiration of Bob Hurwitz, president of Nonesuch Records, who invited Denk to preserve his interpretations on CD — an endeavor toward which Denk remains honestly ambivalent, despite the heady accolades (and, as far as the classical world goes, healthy sales) his Goldbergs have enjoyed.
In January 2013 Denk made his Goldberg recording at the SUNY–Purchase College Performing Arts Center. He played in the same recital hall where he recorded the Ives — a place he described in his New Yorker article as “charmingly Stalinesque,” equipped with “windowless cinder-block walls” and looping cables resembling “a junk yard, with a discarded piano in the middle.”
About why he returned there for such a significant recording, Denk says “I’d already worked there several times with Adam [Abeshouse], and it’s good to have a producer you know how to work with. And Bob [Hurwitz] was very happy with the way the sound came out on my previous records there.”
Glenn Gould had elaborate rituals to prepare for each recording session of his epochal first Goldberg, taking the variations in random order and driving his production team to distraction with multiple takes. For Denk, “basically drinking an occasional coffee” sufficed to fuel him as he recorded in more or less chronological order.
The result has won an enviable portfolio of accolades from music critics — including praise from Listen editor in chief Ben Finane — and garnered more attention spots on PBS NewsHour and All Things Considered.
Still, Denk harbors no illusions about making a “definitive” statement — a concept he pointedly rejects. “That piece is such that I have already completely changed my idea about certain tempos and the character of some of the variations. As with all my records, I want to go back and do it again — but I don’t want to go through the ordeal of recording it again.”
“And there is a sense of regret after putting it down,” he says, “because you’re constantly thinking about it and coming up with new ideas.” The fact that he’s been featuring the Goldberg Variations on tour this season has only compounded the feeling of having “more to say than ever before.”
Even his decision about where to follow the repeats in each variation is left up to the moment of performance, and his approach to tempo — unspecified in Bach’s score — remains in flux. On this side of the equation, for Denk, Bach is reminiscent of “certain jazz standards, where you can go in an up-tempo or down-tempo direction.”
At the same time, Denk mentions that “some aspects of the piece have remained constant” in his interpretation: above all, Bach’s exuberant spirit of invention, which goes beyond playfulness or humor — rather, he finds it “rambunctious” and even “outlandish.”
‘Part of the joy of the Goldberg Variations is the outrageousness of some of the ideas Bach comes up with.’
“Part of the joy of the Goldberg Variations is the outrageousness of some of the ideas Bach comes up with, especially in the last five. Those are as wild as anything Bach ever wrote. And yet you feel it’s a culmination of the whole process of reinventing the theme and something necessary before we return home, having wandered as far afield as you can imagine.”
Less than a week before Nonesuch officially released his Goldberg recording, Denk was announced as one of the recipients of the 2013 MacArthur “genius grants” for his gifts as “a pianist enlivening the musical experience for amateurs and aficionados alike through his eloquence with notes and words.”
Both strengths are represented on his Goldbergs release: the CD is complemented by a DVD on which Denk delivers his personalized “video liner notes,” illustrating his observations with examples at the keyboard. These notes explore such topics as Bach’s approach to intervals, the role of humor and games, the influence of the Goldbergs on Beethoven, the nature of the theme itself, and the “rivers of bass notes” that course through this music.
These videos represent a longstanding passion of Denk’s: to find an alternative to the tired, lazy clichés of standard program notes that all too often diminish the experience of encountering a masterpiece, whether for newcomers or aficionados. In a widely circulated blog post, “Jetlagged Manifesto,” Denk decries how program notes have devolved into “the chloroform rag we use to numb the victim.” His litany of the sins of inept program annotators focuses on the “conversion of extraordinary musical moments” — the moments that make us fall in love with a composer in the first place — “into blobs of generic prose.” The work of art ends up “wounded by flying bullets of blandness.” The same goes for the silly anecdotes and esoteric backstories about a piece — more often than not a confusing blend of fact and fantasy — that the echo chamber of the internet era has further disseminated.
The challenge of trying to convey information about a work as multilayered as the Goldbergs without dumbing it down or losing the audience in “program note-itis” is real, but Denk has a solution: “The way we teach musical form and analysis is all wrong. The paradigm has been to teach students a bunch of nouns, but the essential unit of musical form is a verb: a relationship between two things, two notes or events. I’m really interested in making verbs out of nouns and seeing the piece as process.”
A keen lover of literature, Denk understands the importance of metaphorical connections “to things we all care about” — such as the image of the Goldbergs as a “river of harmonies” or a life journey — to make sense of complex musical processes. But he disdains commentary that’s “all emotion and New Age. I want program notes to be connected to the musical notes themselves, but in a way that doesn’t make it forbidding.”
With the support of his MacArthur grant, Denk foresees expanding “the cross-pollination of the playing and the writing — either in the blog or in the form of a more extended video liner note project.”
In hearing him describe it, you realize just what an exciting, untapped area this is for music educators, advocates, and presenters. Like performances, verbal elucidations of the Goldbergs and other masterpieces of that order are failures if they give the impression of a staid, academic predictability. They disappoint if they neglect the unfathomable discovery waiting to be made with each hearing.
But Denk’s unwavering rigor and analytical prowess — he double-majored, after all, in chemistry — keep his most innovative impulses firmly anchored. He appreciates the “weirdness” of Bach’s invention but also understands its place within the structure of the work overall.
Ultimately this balance of thinking and feeling is what underlies his account of the Goldberg Variations, bringing to the work an originality that is compelling without seeming merely novel.
For Denk, Bach’s logical ingenuity is allied to his sense of beauty in a way that can also be found in great mathematical ideas like the Mandelbrot set “where the most iterative logical processes yield incredibly beautiful and unusually complex results. That’s certainly true of Bach. And it’s eerily similar to phenomena that surround us every day, like snowflakes and weather patterns.”
So there can never be a last word, in print or at the keyboard. “The score has this infinite possibility,” Denk says, “but it gets transected in the act of recording so that one possibility is frozen out of that. It’s both a gain and a loss.”
With something close to two hundred competing interpretations of the Goldberg Variations besides Jeremy Denk’s latest contribution, what are some of the other landmark performances you shouldn’t overlook?
It would be perversely contrarian to ignore Glenn Gould’s 1955 account, initially released as his debut LP by Columbia Masterworks. The young Canadian’s dazzling tempos and “take-twoness” perfectionism of articulation didn’t just electrify contemporary understandings of Bach — these Goldbergs turned an entire young generation on to classical music (even if this and maybe a Beethoven album or two remained the extent of their classical collection). Gould’s unusual decision to rethink his interpretation in 1981 is the yin to his original yang, far more drawn out and reflective. Both are available in an appealing box set from Sony (with excellent notes by Tim Page, who befriended Gould).
Yet there is a BG era: before Gould there was the intrepid Polish keyboardist Wanda Landowska. She was the pioneer who in fact recorded the entire Goldberg Variations for the first time ever, in November 1933 (remastered on Opus 111). By then she was already famous for having dusted off the harpsichord and reclaimed it for twentieth-century audiences, though it must be cautioned that both her “pianistic” harpsichords custom-built by Pleyel and her playing style have little in common with what we think of nowadays as “authentic” performance practice from Bach’s era. In his must-read new book Reinventing Bach, Paul Elie describes Landowska’s approach as constructing “an edifice of hammered-out sound: as if Bach’s bookmatched, cross-hatched patterns are passing on a conveyor belt through the instrument and its keys and levers and pedals are breaking down the music into the raw materials of the Baroque.”
Anyone who still shies away from the harpsichord as too “dainty” will be tempted to become an outright convert after hearing the variety of colors the German master Andreas Staier draws from his state-of-the-art copy of an instrument by the legendary Hieronymus Hass from the 1730s. Thus Staier’s acclaimed recording (Harmonia Mundi) uses a two-manual harpsichord, which means the variations for which Bach specifies two separate keyboards are played the way he intended. Staier is a non-dogmatic and imaginative exponent of the historically informed practice movement. He observes all the repeats but achieves maximal differentiation by taking advantage of the instrument’s remarkably vivid range of timbres (modeled on the Baroque organ’s different registrations). A bonus DVD discussing the work is included.
Meanwhile, purists who scoff at performing Bach on a modern piano must have tin ears to be able to resist what ranks among the most compelling interpretations. It’s somehow fitting that the American–born, London–based Murray Perahia’s recording (Sony Classical) marked his return to performance after a thumb injury had interrupted his career: healing through Bach. What would be a recklessly daredevil gesture in a lesser artist is genius here, an ideal marriage of flawless technique, probing intellectual acuity, and emotional intelligence that grasps the darkness of this music along with its delirious joy.Another marvelous contemporary artist who sets a gold standard is the Canadian Angela Hewitt (Hyperion). She manages to sustain a larger vision of the Goldbergs’ unity while rendering the repeats with incredible imagination and dynamic nuance. The Sunday Times called this release “a miracle of music-making at its most instinctive and spontaneous,” and The Guardian rhapsodized that “everything is right, everything is natural — this is Bach on the piano of the highest quality imaginable.”
This article originally appeared on listenmusicculture.com, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.
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