Jeremy Denk has something to say

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Jeremy Denk has something to say

Post by Ricordanza » Sat Dec 09, 2017 5:49 pm

This was the printed program for Jeremy Denk’s piano recital on Thursday night, December 7:

Mozart: Rondo in A Minor, K. 511
Prokofiev: Visions Fugitives, Op. 22
Beethoven: Piano Sonata in E Major, Op. 109
Schumann: Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13

But I knew from past experience that we would get more—verbally and musically—at a recital by this musician and writer, and Thursday night was no exception.

Denk began the evening by addressing the audience, explaining why he had chosen this “strange assortment” of pieces for the first half of his program. He said that they offered different perspectives on the concept of time. Thus, the Prokofiev set consisted of 20 very short pieces—some as brief as half a minute. On the other hand, this late sonata by Beethoven begins with two relatively short movements but concludes with a much longer third movement, where Beethoven “couldn’t let go” of time.

Hmmmm, a little abstruse, I thought. Time is, of course, a facet of every musical composition. But it gave me something to think about as the evening progressed (and Denk definitely wants his audience to think about what he’s playing).

I don’t recall what Denk had to say about Mozart’s Rondo, but my own impression is that it takes just the right amount of time to express its musical thoughts, and the piece is just perfect in every other way. The structure and harmony are as classical and measured as it can be, but in its sweet melancholy, it sounds like a work from the Romantic era. Denk’s performance was just right as well.

All 20 pieces of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives (Fleeting Visions) are rarely heard in recital. That’s a loss, because hearing the work as a whole reveals the wide variety and imagination of this music. Some of these pieces are impressionistic, reminiscent of (but more spiky than) Debussy. Others are vigorously percussive, foreshadowing what we would hear in Prokofiev’s later works, such as his “War” Sonatas.

We are fortunate that Beethoven “couldn’t let go” when he wrote the third movement of his Opus 109 Sonata. Its extended length allows us to immerse ourselves in one of the most beautiful creations in this composer’s output, perhaps in all of piano literature. Denk’s performance was mesmerizing.

After intermission, Denk took the stage once again to say that, before getting into the “heavy” Schumann Symphonic Etudes, he would lighten up things a bit with a “Voluntary for My Lady Nevell” by the 16th Century composer William Byrd. What do we call an added piece that is not at the end of the program? A precore? Whatever we call it, it was delightful.

Some would say that the Symphonic Etudes are misnamed by Schumann, since they are really a set of variations. Perhaps Schumann was trying to convey the message that this work transcends the ordinary set of variations, that they are symphonic in scope and that they pose a technical challenge for the pianist. Regardless of the name, it is one of Schumann’s greatest works, and one of my favorites. There was a bit of banging in a couple of the more intense variations, but overall, Denk gave a strong and spirited performance.

In announcing his sole encore, Denk said that he apologized to those who were fans of Wagner. Then he launched into a piece that I heard Denk perform two years ago. It’s a work by the American jazz “stride” pianist Donald Lambert (1904-1962) entitled the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhauser. It starts with a conventional statement of that well-known theme, but then launches into a raucous, virtuosic, boogie-woogie version of that music. The audience ate it up.

Denk may be distinguished as a man of words, but he is undoubtedly a master of the keyboard. Throughout the recital, I marveled at his articulation, dynamic control, and overall brilliance.

John F
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Re: Jeremy Denk has something to say

Post by John F » Sat Dec 09, 2017 6:32 pm

As you say, Prokofiev's Visions Fugitives are rarely played and almost as rarely recorded. Prokofiev himself recorded only 9 of them, and for a long time the RCA Victor LP by André Tchaikovsky was the only complete version available outside Russia. (Heinrich Neuhaus, the teacher of Gilels and Richter, recorded the complete set for Melodiya.) This fact, and perhaps the title, indicate that the 20 pieces are not an integrated cycle but a collection of loosely related or unrelated character pieces, in the line from Chopin's and Debussy's preludes; the Wikipedia article says they were composed "individually, many for specific friends of Prokofiev's." Their title was provided by the poet Konstantin Balmont after hearing Prokofiev play them, and it's well suited to the nature of the music.

I think Denk put his audience on the wrong track by saying they offer a "perspective on the concept of time." Not only is that abstruse, as you say, but it's unenlightening. He might better have said that he included them in his program simply because he likes them and thinks they deserve to be heard. Or, better, since that goes without saying, he might have said nothing at all.

Here's the Prokofiev recording. I like the pieces he chose to play, and I really like the way he plays them.
John Francis

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Re: Jeremy Denk has something to say

Post by arepo » Sun Dec 10, 2017 9:27 am


Thank you for another brilliant review, which I've come to expect from you.
Denk is quite an interesting artist, intellectually and musically and never leaves anything in the bag, making his recitals an event always.
His Beethoven was really particularly beautiful. as fine a performance of this masterpiece as I ever heard live.
All together, a most enjoyable evening in Philly.


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