For the last twenty years, I have been in pursuit, with various degrees of intensity, of the perfect recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. There is nothing more cliched than a Bach lover obsessed with the Goldberg’s, but the music’s perfection is itself excuse enough to be so commonplace. Like everyone else, I started with Glenn Gould’s iconic first recording, made in 1955. Previous to the release of Gould’s interpretation, the Goldberg Variations were little recorded; now every pianist of professional caliber feels compelled to leave upon the piece his artistic mark.
For years I listened with fairly addicted regularity to the Gould recording. His speed, intensity, and his technical virtuosity seemed to mirror and exactly align to the music’s almost inhuman perfection. And then suddenly Gould’s playing itself began to sound inhuman to my ears, and not in a way that felt transporting or sublime, but somehow slightly robotic and, dare I say it, arrogant. That I would even write such an opinion, being as ignorant of the technical aspects of Bach’s language as I am, is probably to some people the very definition of arrogance, but it was a felt sense, a purely emotive backing away, that left me, after years of adoration, cold.
So my search began. I went through everyone from Andras Schiff (thoughtful, gorgeous) to Simone Dinnerstein (pretty….but clunky) before recently finding Jeremy Denk, whose recording came out last year, and about which he has had much to say in the media. Most people who listen to classical music are familiar with Denk, and many people who don’t are as well: he has a wonderful blog (though it’s been inactive for awhile), and he writes beautifully and with great wit for many mainstream news organizations. And, as I had the luck to witness firsthand two weeks ago when I saw him perform, he has a true gift for explaining what appears to be incredibly nuanced musical techniques and language to the general layperson (I was proof of that: I actually understood and appreciated what he had to say about the intertwining of Schubert and Janacek).
What to write of his Goldberg interpretation? What can one express that doesn’t come across as either hopelessly hyperbolic, ridiculously and falsely analytical, or simply sentimental? Especially when emotions that lend themselves to crazed hyperbole and sentiment so strong words seem futile are one’s primary reaction to the music? To be perfectly honest, I had images of myself making oblations to Denk as if he were some kind of reincarnated Orpheus (perhaps he is) when I listened to his playing.
Denk’s Goldberg Variations seem to my uneducated ear to combine the technical purity of Gould with the emotional power of someone who truly comprehends the exquisite necessity of this music. Without Bach, my life, and the lives of millions of people, would be a different, dimmer color altogether, and Denk clearly expresses this fact in the almost painful sensitivity of his touch. This is music that encases the body, that holds it, and makes the rest of the world fade to mere background noise. When I listen to this recording, I don’t want to do anything else, I can’t do anything else; it is as if my body becomes part of the 30 variations, and each touch me in a different manner, even though they are written overall in the same key.
As a dancer, I wonder if the body could do justice to this music, to its mesmerizing joy that is interspersed with indescribable moments of melancholic sorrow. What would movement to this music look like? Often in class my teacher will play Bach for a petite allegro, and when she does my heart and feet sing. But Denk’s recording of the Goldberg Variations is a world unto itself, it brings me up short, and my only response, outside of knowing my “search” is over, is stillness. It is a stillness with a wish: to somehow live within the world that Denk’s playing has created.