Bach: Goldberg Variations
In a provocative essay entitled ‘Why I hate the Goldberg Variations’ Jeremy Denk describes Bach’s keyboard colossus as a ‘fool’s errand attempted by the greatest genius of all time’. The shock jock doesn’t really hate the Goldbergs of course – though he’s more than happy to turn received wisdom upside down. Denk’s new recording is at once an extended love letter to intellectual curiosity, the spirit of playfulness and Bach.
His approach is spelled out in the opening Aria, which shuns the hallowed spirituality of a Wanda Landowska or Rosalyn Tureck, without sacrificing poise. A subtle forward momentum shows respect for the music but without reverential baggage. And the upper line sings with exquisite clarity, the other notes weighed and placed just so, together establishing a questing fluency and fluidity that is sustained until the Aria returns.
Denk is firmly in the driving seat, and while each variation is tellingly characterised, they are incorporated into a coherent, organic vision of the whole. One of the chapters in Denk’s accompanying DVD liner notes is headed ‘Games and Humour’, and this sense of play endlessly informs his approach, whether in the fidgety unconstrained glee of Variation Five or the dizzying vertiginous scurry of Variation No. 26. He does thoughtful, too, spinning the divine arabesque of Variation Thirteen with unaffected wide-eyed wonderment.
Just occasionally the added ornaments in repeats court slickness, and Variation No. 29 sounds garbled in places, but Denk can dazzle like Glenn Gould, dance like Angela Hewitt and sing like Murray Perahia or András Schiff. No fool’s messenger he.