At the Concord with the Goldbergs


I was a little worried going into last night’s Tanglewood recital by pianist Jeremy Denk — not for him, but for the audience, myself included, and for the composers and works on the program.  Denk, you see, had presented us with a formidable challenge.  He selected for his program two monuments of the solo keyboard literature which, at first thought, had little to do with each other except for their monumentality.

The first, Charles Ives’s “Concord” Sonata, wrestles with the Big Questions of Existence for 45 minutes without letup in intensity.  Dense to the point of impenetrability, difficult to the point of unplayability, profound, bewildering, all-encompassing, craggy, hilarious, sublime — need I go on?

The second, J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations (Denk’s witty thoughts here), may be as close to a perfect work of music as we’ll be permitted to enjoy during our earthly existence.  If you’ll forgive the perhaps overreaching metaphor, every note of the “Goldbergs” is like a star, each taking its rightful place in a constellation, that forms part of a galaxy, that subsumes itself into a universe of sound, and which at each level, from single star to universe, performs a celestial dance of peace and order.  I told you it might be overreaching, but this is what Bach’s “Goldbergs” mean to me.  It’s the sanest music I know, which is why I’ve never fully cottoned to either of Glenn Gould’s celebrated recordings, particularly the second.  I prefer my sanity untinged by madness, thanks.

Again, I knew that Denk would be up to the challenge of the program.  The guy’s an amazing dynamo, with an all-encompassing technique and a musical mind that operates several levels beyond those of us mere mortals.  But how would we mortals in the audience survive the challenge?  As for the “Concord” and the “Goldbergs,” how would each work stand up when juxtaposed with the other, and how would they harmonize?

Ah…that’s where Denk’s genius comes in.  Under his hands, Ives’s thickets of notes rang clear, true and balanced.  Denk’s delineation of line and clarification of texture were simply astounding.  What may with a lesser artist have been (and has been, alas) an arbitrary Ivesian jumble turned into an intelligible, if still endearingly eccentric, narrative.  The eclecticism that has gotten Ives into hot water with some critics and composers, mashing together as he does hymn tunes, brass bands, parlor piano and other homey materials with more abstract and dissonant music, took on the quality of skilled cinematic montage.  How magically Denk cast each seemingly disparate element in its proper light, making obvious its relation to the whole!  Here was an object lesson in real virtuosity — not just the ability to play the notes, but the ability to play the music.  I know of no greater tribute to Denk’s performance of the “Concord” than to say:   What a great piece!

Then the Bach:  Playful, spontaneous, very pianistic, absolutely delightful.  The canons that Bach spots throughout the work, where one melody chases the tail of the other, actually had me laughing out loud.  Other variations danced, marched, sang, swirled and plumbed the depths of emotion.  Was it perfection?  Not quite — it was too human for that, and all the more moving for it. Bach, of course, did not tell Denk to inflect the “Goldbergs” in the myriad ways we heard last night.  But, and this is the key, he also didn’t say not to. The work survives, even thrives on, a near-infinite variety of interpretations (OK, even Gould’s), of which Denk’s is among the most joyous.

So overall, it was a pretty good couple of hours for the human spirit, which, as you well know, can use all the bucking up it can get lately.  And for me, that vision of humanity — striving, searching,  singing, dancing — was the takeaway from a fine evening to be alive and a music lover.


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