I researched quite extensively online to find my preferred recording of the Goldberg Variations on the piano (I wanted more dynamics than a harpsichord gives), listening to preview clips not only on Amazon but on certain other sites that have preview clips for various recordings that Amazon doesn't support in that way. I eventually came down to the performance by Jeremy Denk. I wanted a performance that brought out the inherent expressiveness in Bach's music without intruding significantly the performer's own self-expression or attention-seeking as most professional performers appear to me do do. Denk appeared to succeed admirably, bringing out phrasing and contrapuntal lines, keeping things moving, not going into self-indulgent 'dreamy' mode, and bringing out a delightful spring-like lightness and playfulness in the work - yet nowhere lacking in the Goldberg's often haunting 'poetry'. I bookmarked that for future purchase.
Then, a little while later I was poking around in YouTube for something or other of Bach, and in the recommendations sidebar Evgeni Koroliov popped up, playing other Bach mega-works that I was interested in, plus the Goldberg. Although Koroliov's appearance while playing suggested to me yet another over-indulgent rendition, I was very impressed with his command and intuitive control, in bringing out the best of the work. In some but certainly not all variations he played a bit less fast than Denk, and I felt that his performance could be more satisfying because of its having rather more periods of repose interspersing the really virtuosic variations.
So, when I came round to make a purchase, I then bought - no, not what you'd probably expect, but BOTH recordings! They appeared both to be excellent within my own terms of reference, but still gave different angles on the work.
However, when I played the CDs right through I found that Koroliov had intruded a decidedly depressive sort of personal indulgence in his rendition of the returned Aria at the end, which really quite soured the effect of his otherwise excellent performance. Denk, on the other hand, provides joyful uplift right through.
Yes, I would actually prefer that Denk had taken a few variations just a little slower, to give more sense of repose between the really virtuosic numbers, but nonetheless this is for me the really outstanding performance of all piano versions that I've yet heard. I love the way he brings out so many nuances of phrasing even in really hectic variations, always bringing out interest in the melodic lines as well as applying larger-scale dynamic shaping - yet he brings out far too much 'poetry' for his rendition to seem too hectic. I would so much like to hear him performing the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Art of Fugue, and - dare I say it? - The Musical Offering (i.e., arranged for two or even three pianos, presumably with additional pianists, but with Denk directing the performance).
For the cost of a mid-price CD, one here gets a complete performance of the Goldberg Variations (including all repeats) on one disc, and a DVD including liner-notes in the form of a series of informative, illustrated talks on the work by the performer.
Having around 20 versions of the Goldbergs in my collection, I was not expecting to be quite so bowled over as I have been. The CD presents one of the most engaging and involving performances of this evergreen work I have ever heard. The dancing bass-line almost achieves a life of its own, while at the same time being perfectly integrated into the whole. This is truly joyful music-making which can hardly fail to engage all who care deeply about music. To take a single example, the breathtaking rhythmic complexity of the exciting 20th variation can scarcely ever have been more deftly realised.
Before I heard Denk, Perahia's recording was probably my favourite. While Perahia aimed for, and achieved, the most beautiful sound, I think Denk's first priority is to show Bach's stunning originality and ingenuity - which he does, with the most incredible finger-work and comittment. Given that Bach wrote the work for a two-manual harpsichord, its translation to a single piano keyboard involves considerable dexterity. Gould had that too: but, for me, he achieved it at some cost to the humanity of the music. Denk manages to combine the best of both approaches, and then some!
The accompanying DVD presents the performer as an erudite, insightful commentator on this endlessly fascinating work and its performance. It is an object lesson in how to educate, involve and capture the imagination of the listener. This must surely become the reference-version for our generation. My only reservation is with the flimsy packaging provided by Nonesuch. But even taking that into consideration, this issue fully merits five stars: I would like to give it six! The music, its performance and presentation is truly a thing of beauty, and will become a joy forever.
I found that Bach was played as though the pianist himself became immersed in another time and celebrated our glorious inheritance of an invincible marriage between composer's mind and imagination within the hidden order of the world around us.
I have both Glen Gould recordings and Murray Perahia's which I thought was probably enough for most people. However Jeremy Denk's recording is a welcome addition. It is fluent and expressive and while a 'classical' interpretation, still manages to add colour and emphasis in just the right quantity to bring out phrases which sound fresh and original. Well recorded, too.
This is a lovely performance of the Goldbergs, well worth hearing and having alongside the arguably slightly superior Hewitt and Perahia versions (my views, of course, opinions differ!).
BUT, the unarguable reason this is unique is in the accompanying "Liner Notes", in the form of a DVD (not, unfortunately, at 2013, transcribed into amazon cloud if you buy the physical package) with over 50 minutes of video. Illustrating continually at the piano, Denk gives a loving commentary on aspects of the Goldbergs that is light and profound, approachable and erudite, humorous but deeply serious. It seems to me equally valuable for an early stage exploration of Bach, or for someone really familiar with this particular work. He caps it off, movingly, with links into the variation movements in last three Beethoven piano sonatas.
Whether you're a Goldberg aficionado, or someone who thinks they just might like to listen to a bit more Bach (beyond the "top pops"), I can't recommend this highly enough. Would give a sixth star if I could. Thank you, Jeremy Denk, for this generous product.
I have heard a number of recordings of the Goldberg variations by various artists. This is superior for the clarity of recording, but also the informative and engaging bonus dvd of Denks liner notes and insights into Bach's techniques, humour and sublime sense of harmony. I would and have recommended this recording to anyone who shares a passion for great music.