Bach’s Goldberg Variations run about the length of an early Marx Brothers movie, but conceal their humor more deftly. Like the movies, the variations are episodic, drawing from long-standing entertainment traditions, but lacing those traditions with reckless originality. I won’t torture this comparison much further, except to note that the last five of those variations are in their way as manic and unexpected as any you find in Duck Soup.
Pianist Jeremy Denk jettisoned the bulk of his planned Union College concert program in favor of performing the Goldbergs. He’s played them here before, but he now offers a recently released recording of the work, which can’t help but change the way you think about a piece, and he had MacArthur “genius” grant laid on him a couple of weeks ago, which can’t help but change the way you think about a little peace and quiet.
So if giving us the Goldbergs instead of the planned mixed-bag of a program was a fallback, we were the richer for it. It’s not your typical recital piece. It’s filled with virtuosity, to be sure, but Bach virtuosity is different from that of, say, Liszt, who needs you to love him, while Bach comes from a place where adoration easily can get in the way of the intellect and wit required to tune in on what’s packed into those innocent-sounding measures.
If there’s a dominant characteristic of Denk’s interpretive approach, I’d say it’s wit. He’s got the chops, so we don’t have to worry about the technical side of things. He’s got an understanding of the music that’s revealed in nearly an hour’s worth of video liner notes to his Goldbergs CD.
We’re not talking laugh-out-loud stuff (although we could if the damn audience would loosen up a little), but there’s an abundance of surprising yet seemingly inevitable detail in those variations, including a false finale in the middle (with an overture immediately following to get it all going again) and a rollicking collision of folksongs in the last variation, supposedly saluting the hijinks at a Bach family gathering.
And there’s the sublime return of the opening aria, one of the greatest “aha!” moments in music, where, like a Nabokov finish, you discover that the seeds of the work’s entirety were staring at your unseeing face from the moment you entered the piece. Denk honored the simplicity of the moment by recreating the simplicity of the opening and letting the rest of it speak for itself. Which is a long-winded, non-specific, roundabout way of saying that his performance was technically dazzling, brimming with discovery, dull when dullness was needed and colored with the kinds of shading a piano isn’t supposed to have.
What we didn’t get (and I suppose we didn’t need) was a spoken introduction. Denk gave one for the Mozart sonata that opened the concert. You could argue that this work—the Sonata No. 15 in F Major—is unusually Bachian for Mozart, especially in its often-contrapuntal opening movement, and Denk, in his spoken intro, likened it to the Two-Part Inventions “with delirious humor.”
Again, as with the Goldbergs’s “Aria,” you get the challenge of a repeated section, but this time it’s the repeat of the first-movement exposition, which Denk skillfully rendered with a more forceful, more in-tempo voice. The second movement, also in sonata form, is all about (again, very Bachian) turns and trills and leading-tones, and here the exposition repeat was a more thoughtful journey.
The concluding rondo actually was written first, but hefted out a bit to balance the rest of the piece. Here it’s the main theme that keeps revisiting, but each re-arrival got a few different brushstrokes of color until in the final moments, when the composer himself tosses that theme into an unexpected register.
Denk made an unneeded apology for beginning the program with this work, fearing such placement might trivialize it. In fact, the Goldbergs demand a substantial opening act, and leave no need for an encore (and got none, thank goodness).