Goldberg Overload: My agonies saved by the banter of pianist Jeremy Denk


Jeremy Denk

My musical companion over a two-day trip late last week was Ottawa-based pianist David Jalbert’s new recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations for ATMA Classique, due for release next week.

I was eagerly awaiting Jalbert’s insights into this iconic suite that manages to transfix even listeners who don’t normally appreciate classical music.

Instead, this latest interpretation — and let me emphasize, pending an upcoming review, that Jalbert’s is very fine — sent me into paroxysms of doubt and torment over what sort of approach suits this music best, when done on a modern piano, and what, ultimately, is the value of having a half-dozen new recordings, by very different and very capable pianists, released in the space of two years?

It was in this frame of mind that I broke down in tears of mirth this morning, as I read American pianist Jeremy Denk‘s I-love-you-I-hate-you rant about the Goldbergs on the NPR website this morning.

Here’s how he starts:

The best reason to hate Bach’s Goldberg Variations —- aside from the obvious reason that everyone asks you all the time which of the two Glenn Gould recordings you prefer —- is that everybody loves them. Not a moment goes by when someone doesn’t release a new recording, accompanied by breathless press. They’re like a trendy bar that (infuriatingly) keeps staying trendy. Yes, I’m suspicious of the Goldbergs’ popularity. Classical Music is not really supposed to be that popular. I worried for years that I would be seduced into playing them, and would become like all the others—besotted, cultish—and that is exactly what happened. I have been assimilated into the Goldberg Borg.

When NPR asked me to do these Goldberg blog posts, I cleverly used the denial portion of my brain to forget my dread. Words seem to bounce off the notes of the Goldbergs, like they’re impregnable. If there’s anything more terrifying than adding another recording to the existing legacy, it’s the idea of adding even one more word to the quivering mass of adulatory Goldberg verbiage.

Then something came over me: an urge to be terrible. I’d like to really let loose on the Goldbergs, to make the case against them, to discuss why they’re not worth discussing.

If you have a moment, read all of it here, and watch the witty video, which includes a battered, old upright on a New York City street.

On a serious note, I have to agree with Denk’s assertion that Bach would have heard Handel’s earlier variation-thon, because there are section of that, earlier, work, that contain identical constructions.

And then there’s this:

John Terauds

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