Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” have been done many times over. Keith Jarrett, Glenn Gould (twice), and one with a very unique twist by jazz pianist Dan Tepfer are just a few that come to mind. So short of radically reinterpreting Bach’s numerous reinterpretations on a theme, all that a high profile classical pianist can do these days is just play the thing, right? Or if you’re Jeremy Denk, you can explain it.
Denk has taught at Bard Conservatory and IU, but it’s unknown to me if he was a lecturer or just gave private instruction. If he didn’t do any lectures, he should have. Bach: Goldberg Variations, Denk’s second release on Nonesuch, comes with a DVD where Denk holds your hand and walks you through the seemingly intimidating nature of this Baroque monster. Jeremy Denk’s lessons are not scripted, so the laid back and relatable delivery of his knowledge comes through nicely. He spells out how the main theme is a “river of base notes”, carrying this aquatic analogy further to explain the “streams and eddies”. In his explanation of the 17th variation, he even confesses that the patterns turn from art into a “mania”. His demonstration of how the left hand pattern can trick the performer’s brain into not knowing when to stop reminds me of Victor Borge’s “Happy Birthday” gag.
And speaking of jokes, Denk makes sure to point out the humor found in the “Goldberg Variations”. Of course, the jokes that Bach plays on the performer are as subtle as unresolved chord sequences or ones that end in the relative minor. Perhaps it’s the passage of time that has rendered our overall sense of humor crude, but there are things in the “Goldberg Variations” that might have labeled Bach as dangerous in his day. It’s impossible to have that context now since Baroque is one of the most button-downed eras of musical history, but Denk does his best to break down the naughty patterns. For instance, the “Black Pearl” movement, Variation #25, is chocked full of unsupported melody. The right hand is frequently disconnected from the left hand at key moments, and it gives the viewer pause of what 18th century listeners would have made of this. To any of us, it’s anything but a big deal. Hence, the value of the package’s DVD.
Denk wrote an essay for National Public Radio called “Why I Hate the ‘Goldberg Variations’”. In it he admits to being suckered by saying “The Goldbergs are a fool’s errand attempted by the greatest genius of all time.” Bach, who wrote more stuff than Frank Zappa, took a G major figure and ran with it more than 30 times over (yes, this piece has some minor-key variations, but they tally up to a grand total of three). “No amount of artistry and inspiration (sorry Glenn, not even you) can make you forget that you are hearing 80 minutes of G major; it’s like trying not to notice Mount Everest,” writes Denk in his snarky essay. I’m so very glad to have read these words. Here I thought there was something wrong with my attention span. It actually brings me comfort to learn that the “Goldberg Variations” were probably conceived as an indulgent prank. And I have this man, Jeremy Denk, to thank for this insight. Here’s a guy who taught at two colleges, has a recording contract with Nonesuch, and still has the nerve to tell us that not all Baroque music was serious business. And that should count for something, right?