Denk Interweaves Schubert and Janáček in Stimulating Recital

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Janáček, Schubert, Mozart, Schumann: Jeremy Denk (piano), 92nd Street Y, Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall, New York, 15.11.2014 (SSM)

Haydn: Piano Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI:50
Janáček: Movements from On an Overgrown Path, alternating with
Schubert: Movements from Ländler, D. 366; Moments musicaux, D. 780; Ländler and Écossaises, D. 734; Grazer Galopp, D. 925
Mozart: Rondo in A minor, K. 511
Schumann: Carnaval, Op. 9

Sometimes the connections between works on a program are opaque. There was an interview recently with Alan Gilbert who was asked why three specific pieces were programmed that week. His answer was something to the effect that they all have dark moments in them, which is like saying they are connected to each other because all are scores written with musical notation. Sometimes a musician is so determined to make connections that the performance is actually destructive to the music. A recent recital by Jonathan Biss was very similar to the one performed here; but Denk interspersed Janáček and Schubert and made his point about connections without destroying the works. Biss’s recital interspersed movements from Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path with movements from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, which made for a mildly interesting didactic experiment in deconstruction, but not a particularly satisfying evening of music.

The Schubert pieces are all miniatures unto themselves, and the Janáček pieces were not meant to be played as a whole (as were the Fantasiestücke of Schumann). On an Overgrown Path was written over a period of 12 years, and it is clear that, at least in the first book, there was no design or overall structure. Both Janáček and Schubert were exposed to dance and folk music, which is really what most of these pieces are. Although we think of Janáček as modern (he died in 1928), he was born just 26 years after Schubert’s death. Denk certainly proved his point about the clear connections between these two seemingly disparate composers. There were several times when I wasn’t quite sure if what Denk was playing was by Janáček or Schubert.

Watching Denk perform is an experience in itself. He is the rare musician who has so totally absorbed the music he plays that it appears they are one and the same. There were times when the music seemed innate to Denk, like someone who has been driving for so many hours over the years that the car almost drives itself. It may look like he’s on auto-pilot, but that doesn’t do justice to the amount of work Denk must have done to reach this level of proficiency. I can only think of one living pianist to whom he  can be compared, and that would be Marc-André Hamelin. Nothing humanly possible to perform is beyond the abilities of these two pianists. Interestingly, Hamelin has just come out with a CD featuring Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Waldszenen plus On an Overgrown Path, Book I.

Denk’s performance of Schumann’s Carnaval was a dream filled with surprises.  Not since recordings by Claudio Arrau have I heard these pieces played with such sensitivity to every nuance. The series of fast tempi, from ”Reconnaissance” to “Marche des Davidsbündler,” was simply dazzling. So immersed was Denk in the music that he never seemed to come up for air.

The concert opened with a brisk and witty interpretation of Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C major, and Denk’s hands bounced off the keyboard. The Adagio may have been taken too slowly and mined too preciously for emotional content. This could also be said of the Mozart Rondo in A minor, which is so beautiful that it didn’t need to be squeezed. Left by itself, it would have been sufficient to reveal a sublime sadness.

Responding to the ovations, Denk proceeded to play two encores: the first was a movement from Davidsbündler, but the second was quite a surprise. The last piece one might have expected to hear as an encore to this program was a work by Charles Ives, in this case the “Alcotts” movement from Concord Sonata. Granted, it was not one of the big movements from this monster of piano music, but nonetheless it was a surprise ending to a concert filled with other surprises, both big and little.

Stan Metzger

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