Bach’s Goldberg Variations has become a piece of cultural capital, used as a prop for intellectual pretensions, and with so many recordings available I must admit to a grumpy scowl as I loaded this disc into my player. Here we go again, another pianist thinks the world needs to hear his thoughts on this venerable masterpiece, this had better be good.
Press play and the Aria is elegant and straightforward, Var I is crisp and playful – good so far. As the disc went on a smile spread from ear to ear – this is rather special, you know. Denk’s limpid tone and judicious pedalling maintains clarity while his architectural grasp integrates each variation into a grand plan while characterising each with a specific mood and attitude. He sees patterns where others merely see notes. Voices move forward and back by way of subtle lighting effects rather than glaring follow-spots; the descending chromatic bass at the beginning of Var XXI is tinted with a darker baritonal colour on the repeat – classy! The fughetta of Var X is stern but not hectoring; indeed Denk never makes an ugly sound and doesn’t peck.
There are sensual delights such as his gleaming touch in the alla breve Var XXII but no mush; this is a cool chaste beauty and playing of intellectual rigour – not po-faced but full of joy and humanity, which has you wondering afresh at the overflowing invention of Bach’s genius. And that is surely the sign of a great performance.