The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival can keep a music lover very busy indeed at this season, and notwithstanding the abundance of the organization’s offerings, it appears to be attracting good-sized crowds to most of its performances. That was the case when pianist Jeremy Denk devoted his entire noontime recital on July 23 to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I was surprised when his repertoire choice was announced since he had played the same piece just this past January up the road in Los Alamos, at a concert easily within reach of Santa Feans. Usually artists are disinclined to repeat the same repertoire so soon in the same “musical market.” Denk has been immersed in this touchstone piece during the past year. He recorded the set around the time he played it in Los Alamos, and the CD is supposed to be issued on the Nonesuch label in September. He has been public in expressing ambivalence about the piece, but obviously he did not end up disliking it enough to stop playing it once the recording sessions were over.
I liked his Santa Fe performance rather more than I did his one in Los Alamos, when I sensed that his relationship to the piece was reaching a peak on the hostility meter. The Santa Fe concert was hard-driving, but on the whole it was less antagonistic. In the early variations Denk did seem almost to be doing battle with the thing, unwilling to slacken the reins for an instant, intent on building momentum until it had reached an almost uncomfortable intensity. The tension finally slackened with a slight ritardando at the end of Variation Six. This led to a freer, lighter character with the transparent two-part texture of Variation Seven, given at what I would call a relaxed andantino or allegretto rather than the gigue tempo suggested by the earliest published score.
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