“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.