Every Good Boy Does Fine by Jeremy Denk review – a virtuosic memoir

The concert pianist’s account of striving for musical mastery sits alongside a stirring coming of age narrative

To be a musician is to learn to live with paradox. That is the conclusion that Jeremy Denk, a first-rank American concert pianist, has come to after more than 40 years of work on his playing. In classical music, there are always more details to be fine-tuned and technical challenges to be overcome, but the obsession with total mastery can also be what keeps you from obtaining it. Denk’s mentor, the Hungarian-American pianist György Sebők, once told his pupil that his big problem was that he was a perfectionist – even though everything about his musical education was aimed at making him so. The true musician must accept that they cannot win, then, but keep trying anyway.

Denk’s credentials are impeccable: in addition to being awarded a MacArthur fellowship (or “genius grant”), he has toured the world, plays regularly at Carnegie Hall in New York, and topped the Billboard classical chart with his recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. In 2014, his take on Beethoven’s final piano sonata was chosen by Radio 3’s Building a Library as the best recording made to date on a modern piano. Reviewer David Owen Norris declared Denk “a modern pianist who knows all the old stuff” and who can deliver an authentic performance in the manner of a skilled orator: dramatic, compelling, but not hammy.

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