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Jeremy Denk and the Logic and Feeling of Bach

Jeremy Denk sitting at the piano
Shervin Lainez
Opus 3 Artists
Jeremy Denk

On The Bach Hour, the words of one of today's most eloquent pianists illuminate his performance of the composer's Partita No. 3, and Konrad Junghänel conducts the Missa Brevis in G minor.

On the program:

Piece d'Orgue (Fantasy) in G, BWV 572 - Fretwork

Missa Brevis in G minor, BWV 235 (translation) - Cantus Cölln, Konrad Junghänel

Partita No. 3 in A minor, BWV 827 - Jeremy Denk, piano



"Bach is a multi-tasker: his logic is unassailable but is not tedious. His proofs soar. He captures the deepest feeling while remaining perfectly logical, thereby demonstrating that those imperatives are not at all opposed."


Pianist Jeremy Denk himself is quite the multi-tasker, as you can hear both in his playing, and in those words taken from an article he wrote for the New Republic. His thoughts, opinions, and performances have made him one of the most fascinating musicians on the stage today. Jeremy Denk is coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I’m Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH. There’s no question that Jeremy Denk’s first passion is piano. He’s a fearless performer. Not only does he take on some of the most daunting works in the repertoire, but he often combines them in one program. Like, for instance, Charles Ives’s “Concord” Sonata and Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata. Or Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Gyorgy Ligeti’s Etudes. Not your average programs, and certainly not your average pianist. And he’s not only fearless; he’s thoughtful as well, as you’ll hear his recording of Bach’s Partita No. 3 later in the hour.

Also on the program today, Bach’s Missa Brevis, or “short mass,” in G minor. For now, though, here is the British viol consort Fretwork, with Bach’s Pièce d’Orgue in G major.

[MUSIC – BWV 572]

That’s the middle section of an organ work simply titled “Organ Piece,” or Pièce d’Orgue, by Bach. It was transcribed by Richard Boothby and performed with his viol consort, Fretwork.

Just as ensembles and performers regularly transform Bach’s music by adapting it to their own sound worlds, Bach himself made a regular practice of transforming his own music.

In the late 1730s he went back to his files of more than 300 sacred cantatas to find individual movements and sequences he could adapt for what is sometimes called the “Lutheran mass.” The text only included the Kyrie and Gloria sections of the Latin Mass, leaving out the Catholic Credo an arrangement Martin Luther had published.

There was a practical concern behind these mass settings. Bach used them in the churches he served in Leipzig.

But as a composer who regularly used music of the past by others, Bach was also keenly aware that certain kinds of music had a staying power over time. By this point in his life, he was undertaking projects that were meant to survive the test of time, and one way to assure that for sacred music is to use the Latin text.

Here is the Missa Brevis, in G minor, using music Bach originally wrote for the Cantatas 72, 102, and 187. Konrad Junghänel conducts Cantus Cölln.

[MUSIC – BWV 235]

J.S. Bach’s Missa Brevis in G minor, BWV 235. Cantus Cölln was directed by Konrad Junghänel, with the soloists drawn from the choir.

In this age of digital technology, we most often come to know and admire musicians through their recordings. When it comes to pianist Jeremy Denk, though, we not only have his stellar recordings of everything from French Romantic composers to the modernist Leon Kirchner. We also have another 21st century conduit: a blog. Think Denk, the online repository of Jeremy Denk’s thoughts on everything from the concept of Infinity as expressed by Mozart and Ligeti to the irresistibile glee he finds in annoying his sometime collaborator, cellist Steven Isserlis.

“Think Denk,” which, like so many blogs, was really meant as a diversion, may have even launched a second, concurrent writing career for Jeremy Denk. Here’s his take on Bach, from a recent article he wrote for The New Republic:

"I think the … precise term … to sum up Bach’s mystique is truth. There is a lot of talk of truth and truthiness these days—the death of truth, a post-truth era, and a proliferation of fact checkers debasing the currency in which they pretend to trade. But in Bach’s case we are talking about a certain kind of truth, a necessary truth, even a divine truth, something unarguable. Bach allows us to deny our suspicion that music may be a tissue of lies, a sensory decadence."

Here is Jeremy Denk with Bach’s Partita No. 3 in A minor.

[MUSIC - BWV 827]

Pianist Jeremy Denk, with Bach’s Partita No. 3 in A minor.

As much as I’m sure Jeremy Denk is glad you’ve heard his performance of that piece, you may also consider something else he wrote in that same New Republic article.

"If you are listening to a recording, you are hearing someone’s truth about Bach’s truth, their idea of Bach’s truth. The wonderment is that you may hear truths you never suspected, possibilities you never dreamed—but still you are buying another person’s truth. So … if you don’t play an instrument, take one up; take lessons; make the time. After a while, set some Bach on the music stand and play it yourself. … No matter how halting, how un-transcendent, your technique is, I promise that it may be the best Bach you will ever hear."

Remember, more from The Bach Hour awaits you anytime at ClassicalWCRB dot org. That’s where you can hear this and past programs on-demand, as well as a link to Jeremy Denk’s blog, Think Denk. Again, that’s all at ClassicalWCRB dot org.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.