theartsdesk in Thuringia: Easter with Bach, Jeremy Denk

Jeremy Denk
The Arts Desk

Sing, dance, breathe: those are the three imperatives for successful Bach performance, and three superlative interpretations at the Thuringia Bach Festival glorified them in excelsis. Frankly, I would have thrilled even to a merely good performance of the B minor Mass given its location in Eisenach’s Georgenkirche, which is to Bach lovers what Bethlehem is to Christians (not that many folk can't be both; and besides, can there really be blasphemy when it comes to the ultimate genius among composers, human as he undeniably was?). 
On Easter Saturday a six-hour train journey, delayed by weekend works, had brought me to serene Weimar from the mixture of rough and dainty, deep culture and Russian bling in Baden-Baden – not exactly lovable, but still functioning much as it did when Dostoyevsky lost a fortune there and wrote about it in The Gambler – in time for Jeremy Denk’s Goldberg Variations. No special venue for this, but the plain wooden interior of Weimar’s Kongress Centrum’s concert hall worked acoustic wonders and the spacious foyers look out on the Weimarhallenpark’s expanse of water and lawns.
 I suppose I should admit to a degree of playing safe in the time I chose to come. Other events in the Bachwochen have showcased, or have yet to showcase, less familiar elements, not least the constant juxtaposition of Bach with the future generations he inspired, from Mendelssohn with his performing version of the St Matthew Passion performed in Meiningen on Good Friday to contemporary composers. This, the testing of unusual as well as obvious venues, and the avoidance of significant ones with hopeless acoustics like the main church in Mühlhausen, constitute the essence of the festival as the current director, Christoph Drescher, sees it. I may only have caught a whiff of that old-versus-new manifesto, but the auguries of what I wanted to hear were too good: just as success was guaranteed by Collegium 1704’s B minor Mass CDs, sent to me by an enthusiastic Czech music-lover, pressed on theartsdesk's Graham Rickson who loved it and treasured ever since, there could similarly be no way that Denk’s extraordinarily lucid, fresh and dynamic approach to the Goldberg Variations – preferable to Gould’s from my perspective – would fall short of his magnificent recording.Jeremy Denk Goldberg VariationsThe degree of concentration from a rapt audience and the drama of sitting transfixed for close on an hour and a half as Denk presumably took even greater freedoms and heightenings of the relationships between variations has fixed this in my memory as an unforgettable concert-hall experience. I could write a book, and I hope Denk will, about the relationship between dance and dream, the significance of inner lines like I’ve never heard them before, above all the still shocking modernity of Variation 25. Only Bach himself could rival this in terms of harmonic invention.
The ultimate cornucopia was to come, in terms of colour and mood, in the Eisenach B minor Mass. We decided to take off immediately after the Easter Sunday service to explore a nearby national icon. The Wartburg, high on a wooded hill 45 minutes’ walk from the centre of Eisenach, has a fourfold, almost mythic, significance: as the site of the famous Minnesingers’ contests of the 12th century; the sanctification of the frankly rather dull-sounding Elizabeth of Hungary – wife of Landgrave Ludwig IV; Martin Luther’s voluntary exile here from 1521-22, disguised as "Junker Jörg" and making his first crucial German translation of the New Testament; and Wagner’s fusing of the first two legendary elements in Tannhäuser. By the time Wagner visited, much of the castle had already had a kitschy German nationalistic makeover, culminating in the Great Hall – Liszt advised on improving the acoustics – but still, I’d very much like to have heard accordionist Denis Patkovic’s Goldbergs-plus-Tiensuu recital. Alas, it clashed with Denk’s performance on another instrument which would have taken Bach by surprise (I like to think that the great original would have welcomed the fresh sonoroties offered by both newcomers).
As in the Denk recital, we had front row seats for the B minor Mass. I’ve noticed that overseas concert organizers seem to think it’s a VIP honour, which it was for the Goldbergs but not exactly for getting the overall picture of larger forces. We found ourselves next to the flutes and oboes: fascinating for seeing what Bach does with their inner parts, including an extraordinary stretch of staccato quavers at one point, but not best for balance. At least we were enveloped in the intelligent youthfulness of these delightful singers and players. The vocal soloists, all excellent, are drawn from a choir which has the professional brilliance of our native known quantities – The Sixteen, Monteverdi Choir, Academy of Ancient Music – but an extra degree of physical relish and, in the tenors, a lightness for the runs I’ve not heard anywhere else.
 Read the rest of the review here