Jeremy Denk at Ozawa Hall: Opposites attract


LENOX -- We start with pianist Jeremy Denk's premise that Bach's "Goldberg" Variations are "essentially a recipe for monotony and failure." If that's so, why pair them with Ives' Concord" Sonata, a recipe for cacophony and failure?

It's as if Bach said, "I write music that soothes the ears," and Ives said, "I write music that challenges the ears." Bach replies: "I write for the soul." Ives, quoting Emerson, one of the heroes in his sonata: "I write for the Over-Soul."

Ah ha. The composers meet on some common ground that, for lack of a better term, we call spirit.

Some more complex variation of this conversation evidently took place in Denk's mind when he conceived the idea of pairing the "Concord" with the Goldbergs on a recital program and taking it on the road. The itinerary brought him and them to Tanglewood on Wednesday night.

The program is a test of stamina, in the first place -- the pianist's, of course, but also for the audience, because these works demand close listening. The Goldbergs, Denk contends on an NPR blog, are a recipe for failure because of their stubborn insistence on remaining almost exclusively in G Major. Yet, he quickly adds, they are also "a fool's errand attempted by the greatest genius of all time."

The craggy "Concord," on the other hand, celebrates Ives' New England Transcendentalists with moments of transcendent beauty and contemplation, but also of jarring tone clusters and discords. It's not, as Ives once said in another context, music for sissies.

We can dispense with the formalities of Denk versus Glenn Gould versus blah-blah. Denk is his own man. He has played these works many times, recorded them and not only knows them inside and out but also enjoys himself immensely while playing them. He weaves about at the keyboard as if made of rubber.


The "Concord" came first on the program. With his seemingly indefatigable fingers, Denk beautifully framed the mood of each movement: questing for "Emerson," fantasy for "Hawthorne," nostalgia for "The Alcotts" and calm reflection for "Thoreau."

He did more. He illuminated the four-note motto, based on the opening of the Beethoven Fifth, so that it provided a connecting thread between movements. Long-breathed, the full melody sounded hauntingly at the end when Tanglewood student Masha Popova wafted Thoreau's flute solo out over an imagined Walden Pond amid lingering nostalgia in the piano.


The 30 Goldberg variations, enclosed between statements of the serene aria, could have been danced right there on the Ozawa Hall stage, so characterful was the performance. (And, in fact, the music has been danced to by the New York City Ballet to choreography by Jerome Robbins.)

The many moods ranged from joyous to prayerful. The 29th variation sped by like a whirlwind, followed by the humorous twists of the 30th (the "quodlibet") and capped by the tranquil return of the aria. Interestingly, both works end on a note of heavenly tranquility.

In short, these works, separated by two centuries, have no connection but they have every connection. The program, as Denk said about the Goldbergs, shouldn't have worked. But it did, amazingly.


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