“Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, / And eternity in an hour,” William Blake wrote in “Auguries of Innocence.” Seemingly both infinite and eternal, Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” offer a pianist a chance to do just that, but the forceful, erudite, technically formidable performance Jeremy Denk gave Sunday afternoon at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum didn’t take it.
Denk had the lid removed from the Hamburg Steinway Model D concert grand that the Gardner purchased last year, and Calderwood Hall overflowed with sound. Not to mention fireworks. A performance of the Goldbergs, with all the repeats, can last 90 minutes. Denk took every repeat and yet stormed through the opening and concluding aria and the 30 variations in just over an hour. He seemed to see the piece as a dialogue between right and left hands, the two of them having equal weight. They declaimed, they discussed, they expounded on the mathematics of Bach’s canons and fugues and inventions and gigues. They soared to dizzying intellectual heights. At times I felt I was listening to a lecture on the inexhaustibility of Bach’s genius when I wanted to be attending a party.
What I missed in these variations was variety. All 30 riff on the bass line from the aria; all but one are 32 measures long; 27 of them are in the same key, G major. Yet in the right hands, they can sing and swing and do just about anything. In Denk’s hands, they burrowed. He played most of them at the same quickstep tempo and often ran them together, as if challenging us to figure out where one stopped and the next started. He played mostly at the same dynamic level — loud — and his hands kept talking at the same time, the left one drumming and thumping and banging, the right sometimes getting swallowed up. There were some muddy jumbles of notes; perhaps that was the fault of the acoustics rather than the result of overpedaling. I couldn’t detect much difference in the repeats.
For many, of course, the gold standard for the Goldbergs is Glenn Gould, and Denk, whose recording of this work will be released Sept 30 on Nonesuch, seemed to have Gould’s 1955 recording in mind. When he finished, the Gardner audience stood almost as one, and there were shouts of “Bravo!” But I hadn’t beheld infinity in the palms of his hands, or heard eternity in that hour.