Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the Great Performers Series, organized by the San Francisco Symphony, presented a solo recital by pianist Jeremy Denk. Last week it was announced that, in place of the highly eclectic program originally prepared, Denk would perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 (“Goldberg”) set of 30 variations on a theme that Bach called an aria but has all the traits of a saraband. Denk is no stranger to this music, having released a recorded performance on Nonesuch in September of 2013; but a recording is never a substitute for a performance.
Nevertheless, it is important to recall that “performance,” at least as we know it today, may not have been foremost on Bach’s mind when he wrote BWV 988. This means looking beyond Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s popular story about Bach having written the variations for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to play for his insomniac employer Count Hermann Karl van Keyserlingk and focus more on the fact that Goldberg had been Bach’s pupil. Combine that fact with Bach’s decision to publish the collection of variations as the fourth and last of his Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice) volumes and the romantic vision of midnight music for an insomniac dissolves into one of a rich, albeit mundane, relationship between teacher and student. Bach always had more to teach and probably pressed on Goldberg the precept that there is always more to learn.
Of course BWV 988 is no less impressive an achievement for being pedagogical. Indeed, as is the case with all of Bach’s pedagogical writing, it is music that pays as much attention to the diverse approaches to invention as it does to technical dexterity. What is impressive about BWV 988 is not how many variations there are but how each one is so uniquely different from all the others. It is well known that every third variation provides a journey through canonic writing, with each canon at a wider interval; but all the other variations journey through more stylistic frameworks than one might have known existed. Bach’s even plays a bit of a joke on his student by writing one of those variations in the conventional form of an overture and then situating it squarely in the middle of the entire collection.
All this means that there is no shortage of insights and discoveries in BWV 988, but they were originally meant for the more intimate relationship between teacher and pupil. A recital is quite a different social framework, particularly when it takes place in a space as large as Davies. Nevertheless, Denk clearly appreciates the prioritizing of insight and discovery; and last night one felt that he was trying to share that experience with the entire audience.
His primary vehicle for this undertaking was clarity of execution. He wanted to cultivate in his listeners impressions not only of the themes and contrapuntal textures but also of how the engine was running beneath the hood, so to speak. On audience side this required far more than casual hearing, but those willing to commit to more attentive listening were generously rewarded.
The original plan was that the recital would consist only of BWV 988. However, at the beginning of the evening Denk announced that he would play BWV 988 after the intermission, preceding it with music intended for the first half of his original program. This turned out to consist primarily of a series of studies in syncopation throughout a span of music history with William Byrd at one end and William Bolcom at the other.
At the core of this series were a variety of different approaches to ragtime. This included the “Sunflower Slow Drag,” which Scott Joplin wrote with his protégé Scott Hayden, efforts by both Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith to write rags (with varying, if not questionable, results), Conlon Nancarrow’s mathematically clinical techniques, and Donald Lambert’s stride piano version of the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. Among all those options, Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost Rag” had a calming sense of nostalgia. (Bolcom wrote the piece in memory of his father.) The Byrd selection, on the other hand, provided one of the earlier efforts of introduce syncopation as a novelty.
The evening began, however, with more Bach, the BWV 808 suite in G minor, the third of the so-called “English” suites. Alas, this was the weakest part of the evening. If Denk’s approach to BWV 988 was all one could hope for by way of clear execution, BWV 808 was a disappointing muddle. Notes ran into each other through lightning-fast passages, blurred by excessive use of the damper pedal; and none of the dance movements offered an account of a rhythm consistent with their respective dance origins. It was almost as if this music had been programmed only to provide Denk with an opportunity to limber up his fingers before getting down to the business of actually making music. Fortunately, that moment passed relatively quickly and could be easily forgotten by the end of an otherwise impressive evening.