Jeremy Denk’s Sweeping Historic Odyssey


Medieval to Modern – Machaut to Ligeti: Jeremy Denk (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 17.9.2016. (CS)

The title of Jeremy Denk’s Wigmore Hall recital promised an encyclopaedic journey through the history of Western classical music; a sort of practical illustration of the development and transformation of musical language, form and style, and of pianistic practice and technique.  In the event, it was both more eclectic and idiosyncratic than that, not least because ten of the twenty-six works performed were written before the piano existed, and seven of those ten were not composed for keyboard at all, rather for voice or voices.

In addition, music representing the years during which the piano and the music written for the instrument underwent enormous mechanical, stylistic and performative change and evolution was allocated an equal proportion of the programme to that dating from Bach back to Machaut. All this meant that, taken as a whole, the programme risked seeming a little imbalanced.  Our tour through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries felt rather compressed as we leap-frogged from Chopin to Schoenberg in three steps, and jumped from Poulenc straight to Stockhausen.

Indeed, the American pianist is making a habit of defying recital conventions and challenging the audience in just this way.  His recital at the Carnegie Hall in April this year, Renaissance to Ragtime, placed two ‘Williams’, Byrd and Bolcom, side by side, and progressed from Nancarrow to Schubert by way of Donald Lambert’s stride piano version of Wagner’s ‘Pilgrim’s Chorus’ from Tannhäuser!  In New York, Denk acknowledged before the recital that the programme was ‘slightly unusual’, perhaps even ‘insane’ – a sort of ‘iPod shuffle’.

At the Wigmore Hall, too, he began by explaining that the miscellany was not designed to illustrate any particular influences and relationships.  But, the programme was allusive in this way, and also more intriguing, surprising and thought-provoking than I had anticipated, with unusual connections and contrasts illuminated by Denk’s sequence and juxtapositions.

Denk made no concessions to the diversity of the programme and did not essay to adapt his approach or technique according to style, form and genre.  Instead, he played throughout with unperturbed control and clarity, with lucid voicing, crystalline tone and a beguiling fluidity of line.  Not that there was not passion, energy and intensity, but the obvious physical engagement with the music was never permitted to ruffle the composure and translucence of the articulation.  Every note was placed with both precision and care, and the consistency of manner and delivery helped to establish a coherence as we moved, often with scarcely a pause, between disparate works, through the musical past to the present-day.

It was, perhaps not surprisingly, the composers who have featured in some of Denk’s solo recordings who made the strongest impression.  The pianist’s 2013 disc of the Goldberg Variations for Nonesuch earned great praise, and it was J.S. Bach who closed the first half of the recital.  The explosion of invention in the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor BWV903 quite simply took my breath away, after the restraint of some of the preceding works.  The touch was light, the sound bright, even glassy, and the trills sparkled; but the rich bass line, played with muscular agility, added depth and fullness, and the shaping of the low chromatic trajectories gave shape to the whole form.

An earlier Nonesuch project had paired Books I and II of György Ligeti’s Études with Beethoven’s Sonata No.32 in C minor Op.111, and the virtuosic Études ­– which a few decades ago might have been termed ‘unplayable’ – have since become one of Denk’s most recognisable calling-cards.  Ligeti hoped that with these Études he would join the historic ranks alongside Chopin, Debussy and Scriabin among others who had taken the pedagogic form to great expressive heights.  These studies demand enormous technical strength and accuracy, as the hands fly, cross, leap and extend.  Denk’s virtually flawless rendition of the sixth Étude, ‘Automne à Varsovie’ – the title alludes to political and economic instability in Poland, as well as to the spirit of Chopin – was remarkably clean yet also nuanced.  More astonishing still was the formal clarity, given the incessant semiquaver figuration against which the a-synchronised chromatic scales tumbled into the netherworld with thunderous force.

The rhythmic vitality present here also characterised the first movement (Allegro molto e con brio) of Beethoven’s Sonata No.5 in C minor, the middle and lower voices of which possessed a racing dynamism.  This movement followed the Andante from Mozart’s Sonata in G K283, the pair forming a brief sojourn into Classicism; Denk’s tone in the Mozart was quite dry and crisp, sometimes a little hard, but – as with the later Ligeti – lucidity did not mean lack of either gradation or distinctions of colour.

The sequence of Romantic works which formed the principal portion of the recital found Denk at his most relaxed and attuned.  A surprisingly restless Moment Musicaux (No.1) by Schubert, in which Denk found some unusual harmonic emphases and great depth beneath the surface simplicity, was followed by a richly poetic rendition of ‘In der Nacht’ from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op.12; the latter surged resonantly and ebbed into gentleness before the fresh flowering of the close.  Chopin’s Prelude in C Op.28 No.1 was a palette-cleansing appetiser for a monumental main course of Wagner via Liszt – the pianist-composer’s arrangement of Isolde’s ‘Liebstod’ – which was notable for its infinite variety of coloristic shades and its expressive directness and control.  Brahms’s B minor Intermezzo (Op.119 No.1) was a refreshing ‘coda’, luminous and cool.

We stepped into the twentieth century where Debussy’s ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’ from the first book of Préludes allowed Denk to demonstrate the delicacy of his retreating pianissimo, while Poulenc’s Nocturne No.1 in C released the pianist’s rhythmic and physical exuberance.  Denk’s hands danced high above the keyboard in the racing staccato passages but never at the expense of evenness or approximation in the densest runs of notes.

Stockhausen’s Klavierstück I saw Denk reach – quite understandably! – for his music for the first time, having performed from memory until that point.  The repetitions of Glass’s Étude No.2 were surprisingly evocative despite the harmonic simplicity, and again much of the weight and profundity, seemed to come from the bass.  As with the Debussy, the final withdrawal of sound was magical.

I had my doubts about Denk’s choices of repertoire at the start of the programme.  Not that new things could not be revealed by unfamiliar timbres and textures, however, and the more contrapuntal of the medieval and Renaissance works – such as the Kyrie from Ockeghem’s Missa prolationum – were characterised by the propulsive interplay of the polyphony allied with melodic eloquence.  And – reversing the effect witnessed in a recent performance by the Artea Trio, of Bach’s Goldberg Variations ­(review) whereby the dispersal of the harpsichord’s strata to instruments of different hue created a truly dynamic conversation – the integration of contrapuntal lines originally delivered by voices of different register and timbre created seamlessness and coherence.

Two songs by Machaut opened the recital: ‘Douce dame jolie’ had true grace, its plainness and sparseness surprisingly suggestive of rich thoughts and feelings.  But, in the items by Gesualdo and Monteverdi the keyboard simply could not capture the rhetorical drama and intensity which text and vocal nuance bestow.  Both madrigals were, however, airy and smooth, these qualities seeming to blossom forth from the free invention and floridity of the preceding ‘voluntarie’ by William Byrd, from My Ladye Nevells Booke.  Further keyboard extravagance was offered by Frescobaldi and Domenico Scarlatti, whose Toccata terza and Sonata in Bb K545, respectively, were finely crafted of line, varied of dynamic range and dazzling of ornamentation, and led naturally into the free explorations of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue.

It was not until the end of the concert that I revised my response to the medieval miniatures with which we had begun, as Denk reprised Gilles de Binchois’s ‘Triste plaisir’ to draw the recital to a close.  The sweet consonances and delicate melodic ornamentation dissolved into a bare fifth which seemed the perfect musical ‘essence’ with which to conclude this sweeping historic odyssey.

A recording of this performance be broadcast on Tuesday 20 September on BBC Radio 3.

Claire Seymour

[Works performed: Machaut – ‘Douce Dame Jolie’, ‘Doulz amis’; Binchois – ‘Triste plaisir’; Ockeghem – Kyrie from Missa prolationum; Dufay – ‘Franc cuer gentil’; Josquin des Prez – Kyrie from Missa Pange lingua; Janequin – ‘Au joly jeu’; Byrd – ‘A voluntarie’ from My Ladye Nevells Booke; Gesualdo – ‘Dolce mio tesoro’; Monteverdi – ‘Zefiro torna e di soavi accenti’; Frescobaldi – Toccata terza; Scarlatti – Sonata in B flat major K.545; J.S. Bach – Chromatic fantasia and fugue BWV903; Mozart – Piano Sonata in G major K.283 (ii. Andante); Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.5 in C minor Op.10 No.1 (i. Allegro molto e con brio), Schubert – Moments musicaux D.780 No.1 in C major; Schumann – Fantasiestücke Op.12 (No.5 In der Nacht); Chopin – 24 Preludes Op.28 (No.1 Prelude in C major, No.2 Prelude in A minor); Liszt – Isoldes Liebestod aus Tristan und Isolde S.447 (transcription from Richard Wagner); Brahms – 4 Klavierstücke Op.119 (No.1 Intermezzo in B minor); Schoenberg (1874-1951) – Drei Klavierstücke Op.11 No.1 (Mäßige Viertel); Debussy – Préludes Book I (Ce qu’a vu le vent de l’ouest); Poulenc – Nocturne No. 1 in C major; Stockhausen – Klavierstück I; Glass – Etude No.2; Ligeti – Étude No.6 (‘Automne à Varsovie’); Binchois – ‘Triste plaisir’.]

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  1. John Abbott says:

    Hi – that should be Donald Lambert’s stride piano Wagner, not Constant Lambert. This mistake appears to be circulating in Jeremy Denk reviews, it first appeared here –

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