Jeremy Denk is known for programs that keep audiences on their toes. His taste, while impeccable, is eclectic in the extreme, and he regularly plays some of the most difficult pieces in the repertory, often back to back. However, in the case of his first solo recital at Davies Symphony Hall last Sunday evening, the intrigue began a week before the actual performance when he announced a complete overhaul of his program: instead of his slated potpourri of Byrd, Joplin, Nancarrow, Stravinsky, Schubert, and much more, he would instead play Bach’s complete Goldberg Variations, one of his signature pieces. I admit I was disappointed. Although the Goldberg Variations are wonderful, the former program had sounded so fresh and exciting and featured many pieces I had never heard before.
But the surprises continued when Denk emerged onstage and announced that he “felt guilty” about the change and so would play the first half of the program more-or-less as originally planned, an would then play the Goldberg Variations in the second half. We were in for a lengthy concert!
After a bracing and expressive performance of Bach’s English Suite in G Minor, Denk gave a brief introduction of the next leg of the concert: a survey of rhythmic syncopation centered around American ragtime music. He began with a classic: “Sunflower Slow Drag,” collaboratively composed by Scott Joplin and Scott Hayden. This was a fun performance, but a pushy tempo and some distracting “classical” mannerisms—such as theatrically throwing his hands up and freezing after the last chord—detracted from the languid, inviting quality it could and should have had. From this starting point he moved onto Stravinsky and Hindemith’s “European take” on American ragtime: difficult, blustery, intellectual and almost cubist in conception, and to William Bolcom’s gorgeously gentle and melodic “Graceful Ghost Rag.” He also played William’s Byrd’s “The Passinge Mesures: the Nynthe Pavian,” which approaches a ragtime-like frenzy of syncopation, and one of Conlon Nancarrow’s incredible Canons written for pianist Ursula Oppens, capping it all off with Donald Lambert’s virtuosic stride arrangement of the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. It was a novel, thrilling first half that received a standing ovation in its own right.
I will not waste too many words explicating the Goldberg Variations for the reason that Denk himself has written eloquently and extensively about them in various forums, including NPR’s online blog and The Guardian’s classical music section. I will instead point out only two things about his performance, firstly, his engaging segues between variations: sometimes one spilled eagerly into the next with hardly a pause, sometimes there was a breath’s-worth of space, and occasionally a long contemplative silence before a change of affect. Too often, pianists take a uniform one-or-two-second pause between each variation, but Denk’s more sensitive approach contributed to the organic emotionality of his interpretation and helped thread the parts into a coherent whole. Secondly, there was a breathtakingly beautiful moment in the fifteenth variation, (the first of only three minor-key variations among a total of thirty), which concludes with a slow upward scale that terminates unexpectedly not on the root, but on the fifth, as if someone laboriously climbing a ladder finds that it has disappeared beneath him and he is left hanging in midair. Denk played this with a soul-searching quality that confirmed his status as a musician who, even after countless performances of a given piece, never ceases to engage intellectually and emotionally. This artistic restlessness ultimately furnishes his playing with both breadth and depth, and explains his appeal to connoisseurs and musical thrill-seekers alike.
The sustained exploratory and contemplative spirit of the Goldberg Variations was an apt counterbalance to the frenetic energy of the ragtime music. Although the program was too long for some, and there were a few early departures, those who remained in the hall until the end emanated a sense of awe for this epic recital.