Jeremy Denk’s many-shaded approach to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier

United StatesUnited States Bach: Jeremy Denk (piano). Recorded in the Music Room of the Rosen House, Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, Katonah, NY, on 10-11.3.2021, for Cal Performances at Home. Streaming from 15.4.2021 to 14.7.2021. (HS)

Jeremy Denk plays Bach for Cal Performances at Home

J.S. BachThe Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I BWV 846-869

Jeremy Denk clearly feels a special connection to J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. A year ago, he expected to be on tour playing Book I for live audiences, a project years in the making that was cut short by COVID pandemic lockdowns after only two performances. In the meantime, he has been posting short videos of his preparations for each of the preludes and fugues. He positions himself next to a piano, playing phrases to illustrate his fertile stream of similes and to explain cogently how he sees Bach’s towering work.

Unlike Bach’s other big keyboard works, which may focus on a particular style (the French Suites or English Suites) or a tune (the Goldberg Variations, all in the same key), each prelude and fugue in The Well-Tempered Clavier explores a different key signature. It starts with C major and C minor and proceeds in half-steps to every key possible on the keyboard, all the way to B major and B minor. While the suites and the variations develop a single phrase into massive musical structures, each prelude and fugue starts afresh with its own sound world.

Even if you don’t know or care about all that, this two-hour video performance is a joy. Recorded in March at Caramoor, the historic music center in upstate New York, it streams through 14 July on Cal Performances at Home.

Denk’s fluid playing uses the modern piano’s dynamics and flexibility in touch to shape a style that one could imagine even Bach appreciating. It may not be what other pianists present in this music, but that’s the point. Bach did not indicate many tempos, nor did he notate crescendos or diminuendos, leaving these choices to the player’s creativity. Countless modern pianists have given the pieces their own glosses, among them Glenn Gould’s willfully insistent tempos and Old Testament gravitas, András Schiff’s tender, deferential modesty and Angela Hewitt’s freewheeling flow.

Denk emphasizes how the preludes set a mood for each key. He wants us to hear what he hears in the music and makes it as clear as possible. That starts right from the very first moments. The oh-so-familiar Prelude in C major with its ever-shifting harmonies floats serenely until it encounters a chord that aches to resolve, and Denk lets it suspend an extra split-second, setting a tone for this whole project to bring out Bach’s harmonies, unusually colorful for the Baroque era.

The C minor prelude is much freer and more expressive, racing ahead with its broken chords and its rapid flourishes, and the fugue begins like a dance with rhythmic figures lilting gently, alternating between crisp staccato articulation and touches of supple legato until they slide smoothly into the final C major chord.

Jeremy Denk plays Bach for Cal Performances at Home

Denk revels in these harmonic surprises every time Bach shifts into a minor mode in the middle of a major prelude, or ends a stern minor-key fugue on a smiling major harmony.

Does the C-sharp major prelude dance sprightly in its triple meter? Denk thinks so and lets it trip lightly, and the fugue occasionally slows its pace to emphasize a softer sequence. In contrast, the fugue that follows proceeds at a slow enough pace to let the harmonies squeeze out a bit more emotion than usual, and it uses the piano’s ability to create a long arc of a crescendo to reach a majestic climax, slowing dramatically into a final major chord.

So it goes throughout this journey. Denk is not averse to using the sustain pedal, which may appall those who believe these pieces must be done as if they were being played on a harpsichord, crisply and without extra resonance. He uses the pedal deftly enough to smooth things out, seldom letting it blur the notes, and he brings out the subject tune at every moment in the fugues, no matter how complex the counterpoint might be around it

By the time we get to B minor, Denk treats the church-like music as if it were lifted from the B minor Mass. The aria-like melody against a constantly moving bass line in the prelude gets a quiet, introspective reading. The fugue starts slowly but takes special note of the ambivalence of all those half-steps in the melodic line. This ups the tension as the music get richer and more complex, even as Denk never gets louder than a mezzo-forte, until that final resolution into a quiet major chord.

Video director Jeremy Roberts uses only a few camera angles – from the side, over Denk’s shoulder to show his hands on the keyboard, and an occasional view from across the piano to catch his signature facial contortions. The intimate ambience of the library-like music room at Caramoor seems an ideal setting for Bach’s glorious, heartfelt music.

Harvey Steiman

To watch the concert click here.

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