Brilliance and Frustration in a Remarkable Recital by Jeremy Denk

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Medieval to ModernJeremy Denk (piano), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 25.9.2016. (GPu)

This was my first opportunity to hear Jeremy Denk playing ‘live’. Having heard his recordings of the Goldberg Variations, Books I and II of György Ligeti’s Piano Études and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 Op.111, I went along expecting piano playing of a high order, with a sureness of technique and a strong structural sense, as well as musicianship of a rather special perceptiveness. I also knew of his fondness for wide-ranging and ambitious programmes. All of these expectations were met, some happily, some less so, in his Cardiff performance of the programme he calls ‘Medieval to Modern’.

To take some of the positives first. I was bowled over by Mr. Denk’s performance of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (BWV903), full of controlled energy within which the lines of musical thought were delineated with delightful clarity; almost as impressive was Mr. Denk’s reading of the first intermezzo from Brahms’ Opus 19 Klavierstücke (which made a new kind of sense heard straight after Liszt’s astonishing transcription of the ‘Liebestod’ and immediately before ‘Mässige’, the first of Schoenberg’s 3 Klavierstücke, revealing continuities not generally recognised with such force). Also striking was the performance of Stravinky’s Piano-Rag-Music (another of Jeremy Denk’s programmes is entitled ‘From Renaissance to Ragtime’, including works by Byrd, Bach, Schubert, Joplin, Hindemith, Nancarrow and Art Tatum), which Denk one described as “a cubist rendition of ragtime with a Martini in hand”, a description he justified in this sophisticated and coolly fragmented reading. I was also very taken by the performance of ‘Automne à Varsovie’, a fascinating and characteristically individual piece by Ligeti, written after his more self-consciously avant-garde works of the 1960s, which in its adoption of elements from nineteenth century piano music (Chopin especially) and from African music, as well as reflecting Ligeti’s frequently declared admiration for Ockeghem and other late medieval composers creates a music both thoroughly of our own time and yet organically connected with earlier musical styles. (One wonders whether the use of the word ‘autumn’ in its title doesn’t imply a kind of quasi-seasonal cycle of stylistic history?). Denk’s sense of structure was particularly apparent here, as the music’s formal units built to a brilliantly played climax (for an insightful account of the piece, see Stephen A. Taylor’s article ‘Chopin, Pygmies, and Tempo Fugue: Ligeti’s “Automne à Varsovie”’ in Music Theory Online, Vol. 3.3). And what better piece to lead pianist and audience all the way back to Binchois?

So far so good, and in some cases so very good! But I must turn now to some of the frustrations of this concert. A concert programme made up of 24 pieces (25 if one counts the reprise of ‘Triste plaisir’), most less than 4 minutes long, often considerably so, inevitably creates a certain sense of rush. Not in Jeremy Denk’s playing – he seemed to give due consideration to every piece – so much as in the listener’s experience. Save for an interval (after the Bach) all the music was played in two long sequences; at times they came dangerously close to feeling like medleys!. During each of these sequences Mr. Denk made only the very briefest of pauses between pieces, generally no more than a lifting of his hands from the keyboard and his feet from the pedals for a second or two before lowering them to start the next piece. I have always firmly believed it important to think of every piece of music as one which rises out of silence and eventually sinks back into silence. It is in those silences, often, that the ‘meaning’ of what one has heard becomes clearer. Here we were robbed of both that post-ludal silence of reflection and of the pre-ludal silence of anticipation and mental preparation. The other major problem relates to the fact that Jeremy Denk, in order to offer us a thesis about the evolution and later subversion of European harmonic ideas had to begin with music written many centuries before the invention of the instrument on which he played them. I presume that the piano transcriptions of such composers as Machaut, Binchois, Ockeghem, Dufay, Desprez, Janequin, Gesualdo and Monteverdi were the work of Jeremy Denk himself; certainly no others were credited on the printed programme. The transcriptions were fine in themselves but could not, in the nature of things, avoid being false to the very ‘nature’ of the works being so transcribed. The sound worlds of a fourteenth century song by Machaut or a section from a fifteenth century Mass by Ockeghem  are so different from that of a modern concert grand that such pieces can only be effectively denatured when played on that instrument. No doubt it wasn’t Jeremy Denk’s conscious purpose but the overall effect felt like a kind of hegemonic attempt to reclaim all music for the modern piano, an attempt to undo/reject much in the performance practice of the last 50 years. The effect was rather as if one gave an illustrated lecture on the history of western painting in which everything before the eighteenth century was presented only in inadequate black and white reproductions and the later paintings were presented in top quality colour images. The work of Fra Angelico or Van Eyck would not, thus, be treated with anything like full justice.

It is no accident that the works I picked out earlier as getting particularly convincing performances were, with the exception of the Bach, all actually written for a ‘modern’ piano (and, of course, we still have a living tradition of Bach performed on the modern piano). Nor, I suspect, should it be any kind of surprise that other works – such as the Scarlatti sonata (where, too, listeners are used to performances on a modern grand, even if many prefer to hear his music on a harpsichord) and Byrd’s Voluntarie – which were written for keyboard predecessors of the piano, came across pretty well too. But the madrigals (with the partial exception of the Gesualdo) and chansons (again with the partial exception of that by Janequin) felt false and were substantially misrepresented.

I left wishing that Jeremy Denk had played fewer and more substantial works and had concentrated (though I would have missed his Bach!) on the piano repertoire pure and simple. Much of his argument about the changing harmonic language of western music could still have been presented, and we (and the composers) would have been spared stray movements from Mozart and Beethoven. We would then have heard more of his considerable virtues as a pianist, to more relevant purpose. Though I had, as I hope I have made clear, rather mixed feelings about this particular concert, I remain eager to hear more of Mr. Denk, on CD or live.

Glyn Pursglove

Machaut (c.1300-1377): ‘Doulz amis, oy mon compleint’ Binchois (c.1400-1497): ‘Triste plaisir’ Ockeghem (c.1415-1474): Kyrie from Missa prolationum Dufay (c.1400-1474): ‘Franc cuer gentil’ Josquin des Prez (c.1440-1521): Kyrie I from Missa Pange lingua Janequin (c.1485-1558): ‘Au joly jeu’ Byrd (1543-1623): A voluntarie from My Ladye Nevells Booke Gesualdo (c.1561-1613): O Dolce mio Tesoro from Madrigali libro sesto Monteverdi (1567-1643): ‘Zefiro torna e di soavi accenti’ Henry Purcell (c.1659-1695): Ground in C minor Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757): Sonata in B flat major, K551 J. S. Bach (1685-1750): Chromatic fantasia and fugue, BWV903 Mozart (1756-1791): Andante from Piano Sonata in C major, K545 Beethoven (1770-1827): Allegro molto e con brio from Piano Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10 No. 1 Robert Schumann (1810-1856): ‘In der Nacht’ from Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 Chopin (1810-1849): Prelude No. 2 in A minor from 24 Preludes Op. 28 Liszt (1811-1886): ‘Isoldes Liebestod aus Tristan und Isolde’, S447 (transcription from Richard Wagner) Brahms (1833-1897): Intermezzo in B minor from  4 Klavierstücke, Op. 119 Schoenberg (1874-1951): ‘Mässige’, Op. 11 No. 1 Debussy (1809-1877): ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ from Images Book 1 Stravinsky (1882-1971): Piano Rag Music Stockhausen (1928-2007): Klavierstück I Glass (b.1937): Etude No. 2 Ligeti (1923-2006): Étude No. 6 ‘Automne à Varsovie’ Binchois: ‘Triste plaisir’


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