Jeremy Denk puts stamp on 'Goldberg Variations' in WPAS recital and on disc

No matter how often officials at the MacArthur Foundation keeps pointing out that they bestow "fellowships," people insist on calling them "genius awards" -- sort of the way people keep saying "Obamacare" instead of "Affordable Health Care Act."

One reason why the "genius" tag has stuck, of course, is that so many of those receiving these annual pats on the back (at $625,000 a pat) really do seem like geniuses. They're certainly not like you and me. Jeremy Denk, one of the recent 2013 honorees, is a case in point.


Denk is a pianist with much more than commendable technical skills. His keen intellectual curiosity, combined with insightful phrasing, can generate unusually vivid interpretations of an extensive repertoire that includes a hefty dose of 20th- and 21st-century fare. He's also one of the best writers about music on the scene today (check out his Web site and blog for examples).

That Denk will continue to engage listeners for a long time seems a sure thing. He did so during an absorbing recital over the weekend at the Kennedy Center for the Washington Performing Arts Society (recent recipient of a pretty big honor, too, a National Medal of Arts).


The major item on the program was Bach's "Goldberg Variations," timed to the release of Denk's recording of that epic work for the Nonesuch label.

If you missed the concert, consider the impressive new CD, which comes with a bonus DVD version of liner notes delivered by the pianist with his usual suavity and imagination. This recording makes a commendable entry in a crowded field (the famed interpretations by Glenn Gould still stand apart).

Denk approaches the Goldbergs with evident relish and from all sides, carefully considering each intricate layer of counterpoint and the pulse of each tempo, peering into the nature of each harmonic shift.

All of this made the pianist's performance on Saturday compelling. The Aria, taken at a moderate clip, emerged with a natural eloquence. The most playful variations had great vitality, the profound Variation 25 a telling introspection.

Denk's subtle embellishments (rhythmic as well as melodic), usually reserved for repeats, added delicious flavoring to the experience. He did not reveal an especially broad palette of tone colors -- I would have loved a more silken touch in some variations, more refined pianissimos in others -- but he continually found fresh ways of communicating.

The pianist also did plenty of facial communicating with his shining eyes, trembling jowls and the occasional sly smile.

He was just as animated at the start of the program during a richly expressive, spontaneous-sounding account of Mozart's Sonata No. 15, which, with its abundant contrapuntal activity and harmonic adventures, made a perfect companion to the Bach score.