Jeremy Denk at UW: When the pianist swaps out Beethoven for the Goldbergs

Jeremy Denk
The Seattle Times

By Melinda Bargreen

There were many surprising moments; you don’t expect Byrd to sound so rambunctious, or the seldom-heard Nancarrow to sound like a pianistic popcorn popper. Nor did the audience expect the substitution of the planned second half of the program (a Haydn Fantasia, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, and Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy”) with Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Few in the house were complaining, however, at the opportunity to hear Denk in the Goldbergs, a work he has performed and recorded to considerable acclaim over the past few years.

Denk played the “Goldberg Variations” with an insouciant charm, and also with the sense that every note had been carefully considered: the attack, the separation or the fluid legato of each phrase, the nature of each articulation, the different character of each variation, the tricky crossing of hands, the variety in dynamics. Ornamentation was sparing but effective.

He is an intensely physical pianist — the master of the head toss (accompanied by quivering jowls), his facial expressions showing joy or deep seriousness, or sly collusion with the audience. Denk’s control of the keyboard is remarkable. He is able to plumb the quietest dynamic ranges of the instrument without losing the sound or missing a note.

By the end of the Goldbergs, Denk had established the sense of a mutual journey taken with his listeners, as the brief opening Aria finally returned in all its eloquent simplicity. The audience responded with a warm ovation and several curtain calls, but Denk wisely declined to play an encore: Bach had already given us the finale.

Read the full review here.