Jeremy Denk's two-hour course in Western Music

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Jeremy Denk's two-hour course in Western Music

Post by Ricordanza » Sat Jan 21, 2017 6:24 pm

Some piano recitals are limited to one composer. Most have three or four. Jeremy Denk’s recital on Friday evening, January 20, included music of 24 different composers. As always with this pianist, there was a method to his madness.

The recital was entitled “Medieval to Modern.” The website of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society provided a further description:

Jeremy Denk charts the history of Western music from the Medieval and Renaissance worlds of Machaut, Couperin and Frescobaldi to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, the modernists Stravinsky, Cage, Ligeti and Adams, and back to Machaut.

Denk seems to have revised the program since this description was first provided. There was no music by Couperin and Frescobaldi, but the program included their contemporaries, Purcell and Monteverdi. No works by Cage, but a piece by Stockhausen. And the concluding piece was not the 14th Century Guillaume de Machaut, but a composer from the next century, Gilles Binchois.

In his spoken introduction (a staple of Denk’s recitals), he explained that he would present the pieces in succession, without interruption (except for intermission), to show the continuity and progression of the music. The first segment began with the rather austere Medieval works, proceeded to the more elaborate Renaissance pieces (mostly vocal works transcribed for piano) before concluding with the more familiar Baroque period of Scarlatti and Bach. The second half started with Mozart and included Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy and the modernists.

All of this would have been a mildly interesting academic exercise, except for the fact that Jeremy Denk is an outstanding pianist who has the extraordinary ability to communicate musically as well as verbally with the audience, and to bring out the essence of each composer he performs.

So I won’t list all of the composers and pieces he played, but just give you a taste of the highlights for this listener: a surprisingly modern sounding 1611 madrigal by Gesualdo; the exuberant Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 551, by Scarlatti; a masterful performance of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue; the erotically charged and harmonically innovative Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, as transcribed by Liszt; a wonderfully textured rendition of Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau; Stravinsky’s wildly rhythmic and humorous (the audience actually laughed at one point) Piano Rag Music; and the hauntingly beautiful Etude No. 2 by Philip Glass.

A standing ovation by virtually the entire audience, and shouts of “Bravo” greeted Denk at the conclusion of this recital. There were no encores but what, indeed, could follow this monumental excursion?

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