Last Tuesday I received an email from the San Francisco Symphony announcing the pianist Jeremy Denk was changing the program for his upcoming Sunday evening recital at Davies Symphony Hall. Tsk, tsk, Jeremy's been procrastinating again, I thought to myself, mildly disappointed that the intriguing program featuring a cornucopia of studies in syncopation paired with some classic German rep was getting ditched in favor of yet another performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations. We've been through this before, in 2010 when Denk changed the program at a Cal Performances recital just before taking the stage, substituting Liszt's Dante Sonata in place of the second book of Ligeti's Etudes in a program which was to feature both books of Ligeti's and -- wait for it -- Bach's Goldberg Variations.
On Sunday night Denk walked on stage to warm applause and announced he was "feeling guilty" about the change, so instead of performing just the Goldberg he would play most of the first half of what was originally scheduled, which he described as "one big lump" of music that uses "ragtime as a point of departure," followed by theGoldberg after the intermission. This second change nearly doubled the length of the revised concert program, but it essentially made him straight with the audience as far as getting their money's worth (the Symphony comped my ticket, but had I paid $99 for it I would have been upset about the first change). As far as lumps go in describing the concert's first half, Denk wasn't joking.
Leaving out pieces on the original program by Charles Ives and Art Tatum, Denk announced he would play Bach's English Suite No. 3, Scott Joplin & Scott Hayden's "Sunflower Slow Drag," Stravinsky's "Piano-Rag-Music," William Byrd's "The Passinge Measures: the Kynthe Pavian," Paul Hindemith's Ragtime from Suite 1922, William Bolcom's "Graceful Ghost Rag," Conlon Nancarrow's Canon, and Donald Lambert's ragtime/stride version of the "Pilgrim's Chorus" from Tannhauser.
The Bach suite was rough and graceless, lacking in precision, and things didn't get better until Denk found some common ground with Hindemith, Bolcom, and Nancarrow. Ragtime's rhythms might be imprecise and jerky but they're steady, and even Stravinsky managed to find a beat within the form as he pulled it apart it like so much taffy, and while a Joplin rag isn't easy to play, there's nothing conceptually tricky about them apart from understanding their sense of syncopation. But Denk's chosen rhythms for these pieces was difficult to understand: devoid of joy, mechanical, and bearing little resemblance to anything one could dance to, at times the concert's first half felt akin to watching a dozen elderly English ladies being rudely forced to rise up from their afternoon tea and made to dance to Beyoncé's "Formation." Denk played Lambert's piece at a breakneck pace, but without a hint of swing, and the result was the concert's first half felt largely devoted to fingerwork displays at the expense of making music.
The second half was demonstrably better, as it should have been since Denk's been performing this music for years now. However, the arrival of clarity and a sense of rhythmic comprehension, welcome as it was, could only go so far in making the complete Goldberg an engaging concert experience for anyone except its legions of devotees, and while there were many present, I'm not one of them. The story of the origin of these variations as told by Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel is disputed by many, but I've never once doubted his claim that they were originally written as a cure for the insomnia of Goldberg's patron Count Keyserlingk.
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