Wednesday, February 5, 2014


EJ Thomas Hall
February 4

A captivating mix of erudition and exploration.

Jeremy Denk cuts a decidedly different figure onstage. He plays the piano like a precocious 12-year old, bobbing and weaving and waving his head as his hands bounce on the keys. At his recital in Akron on Tuesday night, he prefaced each piece he played (except, oddly, the last one) with what he called “spoken program notes” – introductions that included background on the composer, the work, and how he approaches it.

Which turned out to be hugely helpful. Denk is the second major keyboard talent to appear in northeast Ohio in the past two weeks, and like the first, Gabriela Montero (see review below), he has his own highly personal language and style. Prodigiously talented, Denk can play textbook versions of complicated classics or run off in entirely new directions with them – often both in a single piece. So it’s good to have a road map, offering some sense of where he’s going and why.

What distinguishes Denk from many of his contemporaries is his knowledge of and respect for the music. Interpretations can be an ego exercise, an artist using a work to show off his skills or bend the music to his tastes. From both his introductions and the focused intensity of his playing, it’s clear that Denk has thought a lot about the music he performs, what the composer had in mind and achieved, and how he can honor and bring that to life. If Denk doesn’t play exactly what’s on the page it’s because he’s aiming for a higher truth, one that embodies the spirit and intent of the music without necessarily nailing all the details.

That was clear in the opening work, Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 15 in F major (KV 533/494). Denk’s animated approach and mischievous tone captured the exuberant quality of Mozart’s music, even in the darker, complex harmonics that appear late in the piece. In keeping with his opening observation that the three movements are so different, they might have been written by three different composers, Denk created epic pictures on a broad canvas. If some notes went missing or got clipped along the way, that did not detract from the overall impact.

Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze (Dances of the League of David) took Denk’s performance from intriguing to amazing. After setting up the piece as the composer’s giddy gift to his fiancèe Clara, he gave a masterful rendition of it, capturing the freewheeling sense of movement while reveling in the vivid array of colors, tones and moods that run through the 18 movements. A work of considerable complexity, it sounded completely fluid and fresh in Denk’s hands. And his control was astonishing. Again and again he would run the music to a precipitous outer edge, only to pull it back into straightforward virtuoso territory.

Denk opened the second half with three of Ligeti’s late-career Ètudes. The pianist’s style seems too lyrical for modern music, but he has a firm grasp of these works, which he has described as “bite-sized bits of infinity.” The dexterous work on technically confounding passages, broken chords floating like delicate aural wisps, and precision sounds – the final notes of L’escalier du diable had the crystalline quality of falling icicles – made for a smart, coolly impassioned reading.

Schumann’s Carnaval provided a riveting close, with even the simplest melodies carrying great portent and every note rich with feeling. Fittingly for a work describing a sequence of scenes and characters, it had a strong inner pulse that seemed to pull Denk along, rather than vice versa. It’s a remarkable achievement when the music takes on a life of its own. In this case Denk deserves credit not only for his understanding and mastery of the piece, but his willingness to disappear inside it and ride the rapids with his listeners.

A brief nod to Bach’s Goldberg Variations was enough of an encore for an audience anxious to get out ahead of a gathering snowstorm. And the warm, lingering sounds of the “Three Graces” Steinway offered a final reminder of what a gifted player can create with a peerless instrument: Magic.

For more on Jeremy Denk:

No comments:

Post a Comment