Jeremy Denk brings out the introspection, exuberance of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”

April 4, 2022 at 11:39 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Jeremy Denk performed Book I of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” Sunday afternoon at Calderwood Studio for the Celebrity Series.

Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier has always delighted the musical specialist. Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Chopin pored over the score, marveling at its blend of poetry and intricacy. Yet 300 years after they were compiled, the 48 preludes and fugues have come to define form and discipline—the music complex and rigorous but too often bereft of deeper substance.

Pianist Jeremy Denk instead sees this work as a delicate balance between light and darkness, played out through its comprehensive exploration of all major and minor keys. Sunday afternoon at Calderwood Studio, he offered a fresh interpretation of Book I from the Well-Tempered Clavier in Celebrity Series recital.

Bach achieves a profundity in this familiar capstone through the simplest of means. The C major Prelude is little more than a series of arpeggios that result in subtle moments of tension and release. Other preludes, like the B-flat major, course with an improvisatory zeal, while movements like the A-flat major fugue reveal warm lyricism through the most formal logic.

In each, Denk’s pearly tone and crisp articulation conveyed rich contrasts between introspection and exuberance. The C major fugue, with its stepwise theme, was both vigorous and tenderly expressive. The pianist communicated the joy of the C-sharp major fugue and the urgency of the D major’s flourishes.

The Fugue in E-flat minor sounded at a whisper, as if the music were secretly relaying its serenity. The Prelude in F major moved with congenial flow. So did the Fugue in F-sharp major, its meandering lines coalescing in a graceful dialogue between hands.

Other movements were more reflective. Denk’s spacious traversal of the E-flat minor Prelude looked ahead to Chopin. The Prelude in G minor was also a scene of haunting beauty, the phrases wistful, even mysterious. The dark pearl of this set is the Prelude in C-sharp minor, which Denk rendered with searching melancholy.

Elsewhere, Denk struck a perfect balance between sensitivity and dramatic flair. The Fugue in F-sharp minor was pensive without being ponderous. Denk likewise found the soft momentum of the Fugue in G minor, the angular phrases smoothing into resonant harmonies.

Some movements weren’t played so much as tastefully punched out. The fanfares of the A-flat major Prelude set a regal tone. Denk also mounted the A minor Prelude with percussive zest, and he navigated the running figures of the B-flat major Prelude with precision. Sudden accents in the Fugue in A major even delivered momentary humor.

But Denk’s thoughtful approach kept the focus on the big picture. The sparse statements that open the Fugue in B-flat minor unfolded naturally, as if the music were forming itself out of mist. Denk channeled utmost intimacy in the Prelude in B minor, his phrases growing fainter with every repeat.

To close, Denk reprised the C major Prelude, this time with more weight and conviction, in a quasi-Goldberg Variations like reprise. In that moment, this familiar music brought quiet triumph to a long but auspicious musical journey.

The Celebrity Series will present Hub New Music in works by Cerrone, Sharlat, Joachim, Quiñone, and Agócs, streaming 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment